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After reshuffle, Abe remains on rocky road over abductions

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe replaced some of key personnel in charge of the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals in last week’s cabinet reshuffle, demonstrating afresh his determination to resolve the decades-long problem.

Abe, whose final term of office as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is set to end in September 2021, is desperately hoping to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to pave the way for resolving the abduction issue, which he calls one of his administration’s most important policy challenges.

But Kim has signaled no intention to accept a tete-a-tete meeting with Abe, and a resolution to the issue is nowhere in sight.

“In an all-Japan effort, my administration must come together to resolve the abduction issue,” Abe said at his meeting in Tokyo on Monday with family members of abduction victims, including Sakie Yokota, whose daughter, Megumi, was kidnapped to North Korea in 1977 at the age of 13. “We have no time to waste,” Abe stressed, reiterating his wish to hold a meeting with Kim at an early date.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who was kept in the positions of the top government spokesman and minister for the abduction issue in the cabinet shake-up, has said, “I’ll continue working hard (to resolve the issue) under the prime minister.”

For Abe, the abduction issue is his lifetime’s work, which he has been tackling since 1988, when he was a secretary to a lawmaker. He takes pride in being one of the first Japanese politicians to start tackling the issue.

While little progress has been made in Japan’s negotiations with Russia on their decades-old territorial dispute over four northwestern Pacific islands, Abe is eager to achieve the resolution of the abduction issue before the end of his term as LDP president to make it one of his political legacies.

To accelerate the efforts on the abduction issue, Abe appointed Shigeru Kitamura, former director of cabinet intelligence, as head of the secretariat for the government’s National Security Council in place of Shotaro Yachi.

A former National Police Agency official, Kitamura is a trusted aide to Abe and is believed to have repeatedly held secret talks with North Korean officials under the prime minister’s instructions.

Abe’s choice of Toshimitsu Motegi as new foreign minister is thought to reflect his high expectations for Motegi’s strong negotiating skills that recently led Japan to reach a broad trade agreement with the United States.

The road ahead remains tough, however.

People close to Abe initially believed that momentum for solving the abduction issue would be created once progress is made in U.S.-North Korea talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. But such optimistic views were shattered, with Pyongyang repeating launches of short-range ballistic missiles recently.

“North Korea is not taking Japan seriously,” a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

At Monday’s meeting with Abe, Yokota, who is in her 80s, pleaded to the Japanese government for an early resolution to the abduction issue. “Please, give us a day when we can see our loved ones while we are in good health,” she said.

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