With US President Donald Trump about to enter a high-stakes summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday made a last-ditch appeal to ensure his country’s interests are on the agenda.
And as the way forward on denuclearisation is likely to be the key focus at the Trump-Kim summit, Mr Abe fought to make sure that his country’s longstanding abduction issue will not be forgotten.
With this in mind, and amid concerns of a rift in their North Korea policy on “maximum pressure”, Mr Abe angled for the meeting so that he would be among the last few world leaders to privately have Mr Trump’s ear before the Singapore summit next Tuesday.
Yesterday’s meeting at the White House – the seventh between the two leaders – began past noon (midnight today Singapore time) and was still ongoing at press time.
“The discussion will likely be simply, ‘Please make sure to talk about the abduction problem, because this is a matter of life and death for Japan’,” the Asahi Shimbun quoted a high-ranking Japanese government official as saying.
The abduction issue refers to the kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. It remains a highly emotive issue for Japan, where interviews with family members of the victims often make news.
But Japan and North Korea are at an impasse on this issue. Tokyo officially recognises 17 victims, but Pyongyang has insisted there were only 13. Five were returned in 2002, after then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang for talks with then leader Kim Jong Il.
The North has been asserting that the matter has been long resolved. It says eight of those missing have died while the other four, recognised by Japan, have never actually entered the country.
In May 2014, Japan and North Korea reached an agreement in Stockholm, with Pyongyang promising to resume its probe into the missing Japanese nationals in exchange for Tokyo lifting some of its economic sanctions. However, the North unilaterally called off the probe in 2016. Japan wants a proper account from Pyongyang on the 12 remaining victims – including concrete proof if the eight have died.
Mr Abe will urge Mr Trump to dismiss any claims by Mr Kim that the abduction issue has been resolved, and to help convey that it will consider normalising ties if there is progress on the issue, Kyodo News Agency reported on Tuesday.
“I want to make sure Japan is on the same page with President Trump ahead of the first-ever US-North Korea summit,” Mr Abe told reporters on Wednesday before he left for Washington.
Yesterday, Mr Abe sought to coordinate Japan’s policy on North Korea with that of the US, amid concerns over Mr Trump’s remark last Friday that he no longer wants to use the phrase “maximum pressure”.
Japan has been one of the most vocal advocates of the need for a “maximum pressure” campaign, and is concerned that dialling down the rhetoric will serve only to encourage sanctions evasion – even if the stiff sanctions regime has not yet been eased. In doing so, it has faced pushback from both Koreas.
Yesterday, Mr Trump, with Mr Abe by his side, said he is “very well prepared” for the upcoming summit. “The summit is all ready to go,” he said. “It’s going to be much more than a photo op.”
He reiterated that it would “not be acceptable” if North Korea did not denuclearise, adding that the sanctions have to stay in place.
Mr Abe said he hoped the summit would be a dramatic and transformational moment for North-east Asia.