TOKYO - Japan sees the historic summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as "a step towards a comprehensive settlement of issues", Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday (June 12).
He was speaking after the two leaders signed a declaration to "work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula", and reiterated his hopes for his own summit with Mr Kim, whose official title is Chairman of the State Affairs Commission.
Mr Abe said he was grateful to Mr Trump for emphasising to Mr Kim the need to fully resolve the longstanding abduction issue, adding: "Ultimately, however, it is Japan's responsibility to negotiate directly on this."
Mr Trump earlier told a press conference in Singapore that he had not only broached the topic, but also won a promise from Mr Kim that "it will be worked on".
While the issue was not explicitly spelt out in the joint declaration at the close of the Singapore summit, some Japanese analysts have seen the written commitment to recovering the remains of prisoners of war and those missing in action in the Korean War as a step forward on human rights issues.
The kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s remain a highly emotive issue for Japan, and Mr Abe has made resolving the issue his top priority. Tokyo says 12 victims remain unaccounted for, though Pyongyang has long asserted that eight of them have died while four have never entered the country.
If and when Mr Abe meets Mr Kim, it will be the first summit between Japan and North Korea in 14 years. Then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang twice - in September 2002 and May 2004. He secured the return of five Japanese citizens on the first trip and, subsequently, their reunion with their North Korea-born children.
Dr Masashi Nishihara, president of Japan's Research Institute for Peace and Security, told The Straits Times that Japan and North Korea - which do not have bilateral ties - should ride on the momentum to set up a committee so as to secure the eventual return of the abductees.
Kobe University political scientist Tosh Minohara, while noting Japan's hopes for a return of the victims, added that if Pyongyang were found to be telling the truth, Tokyo should get "a full report of how these people were abducted, how they lived in North Korea, along with their remains, for there to be proper closure".
Several family members of the abductees have cheered the summit, and called on Mr Abe to take concrete steps fast. One of them was Mrs Sakie Yokota, 82, who has become one of the most prominent victims, with Mr Abe and Mr Trump relaying to international audiences the story of her daughter Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped in 1977 at the age of 13, on her way home from school in the coastal city of Niigata.
Mrs Yokota told public broadcaster NHK: "It is a good thing that such a miraculous meeting could occur. I hope ties between Japan and North Korea can also be improved, and that the abductees can come home early."
Meanwhile, Mr Shigeo Iizuka, 80, whose sister Yaeko Taguchi was abducted in 1978 at age 22, said: "The question is how to proceed on this from now on, and I would like Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese government to think about concrete movements towards resolving urgently."
Japan has made it a pre-condition that North Korea resolve the abduction issue, and dismantle its nuclear stockpile and ballistic missiles of all ranges, for it to normalise relations and make reparations for having colonised the Korean peninsula.
In a marked departure from his hardline "maximum pressure" rhetoric, Mr Abe on Monday discussed the economic potential that an open North Korean economy will bring to the Asia-Pacific region, given its "untouched resources as well as an abundant labour force".
Mr Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), said earlier on Tuesday: "To be in a situation where the US and North Korea can have dialogue and talk directly to each other will be a great relief to all, and we should all make efforts so that such circumstances can persist for a long time to come."
Keio University political scientist Yasushi Watanabe told The Straits Times that he was disappointed by the scant declaration as the way forward had not been put into writing, though he acknowledged that the document was, in a sense, a pledge to keep talking.
Even then, Tokyo will be reassured by Mr Trump's pledge not to relax sanctions until which point there are concrete steps being advanced towards denuclearisation, as it has been wary of the North reneging on its promises, and has often cited historical precedent to show why Pyongyang's word cannot be taken at face value.
In a way, the continued sanctions campaign could potentially catalyse the process.
Dr Watanabe said: "It is good that dialogue will continue but it cannot go on and on. Hopefully by the end of the year they can come up with a specific road map on how to achieve denuclearisation, and fast."
Mr Kim's night city tour of Singapore's Marina Bay area, Dr Watanabe noted, could imply his focus on economic development - which is where Japan can come in with its infrastructure expertise and technology transfer.
"In this sense I think Kim might be inclined to move forward with an economic prosperity plan and therefore reconcile with Japan the abduction issue."
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono leaves for Seoul on Wednesday for a two-day visit, during which he will hold two-way and three-way talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung Wha.