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Japan hopes for abduction issue resolution amid N. Korea diplomatic thaw, but risks remain

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fields questions from reporters at the prime minister's official residence in central Tokyo shortly after a press conference by President Donald Trump of the United States in Singapore on June 12, 2018. President Trump had a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un earlier in the day. (Mainichi)

Japan is hoping to restart discussions with North Korea over the latter's abductions of Japanese citizens, in parallel with continuing talks between Washington and Pyongyang, after President Donald Trump told reporters on June 12 that he had broached the issue with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un that day.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters on the evening of June 12, "I'm determined for Japan to directly face North Korea and resolve (the abduction issue) bilaterally."

The Japanese government is looking to leverage the prospect of economic cooperation to press Pyongyang on the abduction issue. Trump, meanwhile, has pushed the idea that North Korea's neighbors -- Japan, China and South Korea -- ought to pony up financial support for the North, and Abe has been dangling economic help like a carrot in hopes of enticing Pyongyang to the bargaining table.

A senior North Korean official may be in attendance at an international conference set for June 14 and 15 in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and the Japanese Foreign Ministry is planning to dispatch a high-ranking official of its own to try and make contact.

However, to make progress on the abduction issue, North Korea will have to be convinced to shift away from its position that the problem has been solved already. Even if the North agrees to restart its internal inquiry into the kidnappings and the fates of the victims, past investigations in North Korea have repeatedly hit snags and gotten bogged down due in part to the country's different laws and culture. It is thus unclear whether any restart of those inquiries would bear real fruit.

In May 2014, North Korea agreed to restart the inquiry, but it continued to insist that eight Japanese citizens still unaccounted for were dead before summarily ending the investigation.

The 2002 Pyongyang Declaration signed by Japan and North Korea stated that the two nations would begin economic cooperation after normalizing diplomatic relations. (North Korea did not and still does not have an official embassy in Japan, and vice-versa.) Solving the abduction issue was one prerequisite for this to happen. Nevertheless, even after plans for talks between the U.S. and the North got rolling last month, Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency reported that "the abduction issue has been dealt with."

If North Korea now takes concrete steps to rid itself of missiles and nuclear arms, it's quite possible international opinion will solidify around loosening sanctions and providing economic aid to the isolated nation. In that case, if Japan continues to refuse to join in these efforts because the abduction issue has not been resolved, it will run the serious risk of an international backlash.

(Japanese original by Yu Takayama and Hiroshi Odanaka, Political News Department)

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