TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s willingness to hold an unconditional summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un demonstrates his determination to find a resolution to abduction and other outstanding issues, the top government spokesman said Tuesday.
“The prime minister has said he will end mutual distrust and meet with Chairman Kim to resolve the North Korean nuclear, missile, and most importantly, abduction issues. His alluding to a summit without conditions reflects that determination more clearly,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press briefing.
Abe has made it a top political priority to settle the long-standing issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. He indicated previously that a future summit with Kim would not be possible without a guarantee of progress.
But following a phone conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, Abe likely lowered that hurdle when he told reporters he will face Kim directly “without conditions,” a perceived shift from his stance.
Abe explained his stance to Trump during the phone conversation, in which they also confirmed Japan and the United States will coordinate efforts to cope with North Korea, a senior Japanese government official said.
Asked if the Japanese government has changed its policy toward North Korea, Suga said Tuesday that pledges made in a bilateral declaration signed in 2002 are still valid. In the declaration, the two countries agreed to seek a comprehensive settlement of the nuclear, missile and abduction issues, and a normalization of bilateral relations.
Abe has yet to meet with Kim, who has stepped up diplomacy through face-to-face meetings with other world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae In.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tuesday that given Kim’s top-down approach to making foreign policy decisions, “it’s clear that Japan needs to hold a summit with North Korea in order to resolve the abduction issue, as well as the nuclear and missile issues.”
Japan officially lists 17 citizens as abduction victims and suspects North Korea’s involvement in many more disappearances. Five of the 17 returned to Japan in 2002.
Abe, who has enjoyed relatively strong public support, is seeking to produce major accomplishments by tackling diplomatic challenges left unresolved in the postwar era.
In recent months, the Japanese government has shown some conciliatory gestures toward North Korea and forewent submitting a draft joint resolution condemning Pyongyang’s human rights abuses to a U.N. panel for the first time since 2007.
Natsuo Yamaguchi, who heads Komeito, the junior coalition partner of Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, hailed Japan making a proactive move.
“We will throw our support behind him so we can see a concrete path toward dialogue,” Yamaguchi said.
In summit talks between Trump and Kim in Vietnam, in February, no substantive progress was made on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and tensions were inflamed when North Korea on Saturday fired projectiles into the Sea of Japan.
North Korea is prohibited from carrying out ballistic missile tests under U.N. Security Council resolutions. However, some U.S. and South Korean military experts suspect North Korea was conducting a short-range ballistic missile test on Saturday.
Abe said Japanese and U.S. experts will analyze the nature of the launches.