Since North Korea’s pivot to diplomacy began early this year, Mr Abe has stayed on the sidelines, wary of Pyongyang’s intentions. During that time, Mr Kim has held two meetings each with the leaders of China and South Korea, and a historic first summit with President Donald Trump.Now, it appears Mr Abe may dive in.
“We should have a summit meeting that resolves our mutual issues,” chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference on Thursday.
A first meeting between the two leaders could come as early as August or September, according to several mainstream Japanese press reports, although officials say nothing has been decided. The priority, they say, is that any talks produce tangible results.
Tokyo’s caution reflects its fraught experience in negotiations with North Korea, particularly a 16-year-long struggle to get a full and transparent account of what happened to Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s.
Japanese leaders say that account, along with the release of any living abductees, remains a priority. Japan says at least 12 citizens are unaccounted for, perhaps dozens more.
“Of course we have to make progress on the abduction issue in any summit meeting with North Korea,” Mr Abe told relatives of abductees in a meeting in Tokyo on Thursday. Mr Abe said Mr Trump had raised the Japanese abduction issue with Mr Kim, but it isn’t clear how the North Korean leader responded.
Japan also wants to ensure that any North Korean move to dismantle its nuclear-tipped missile arsenal as a result of talks with the US includes midrange missiles that threaten Japan but not the US homeland. Pyongyang fired two missiles over Japan last year.
Japanese officials say they are aligned with the US in their firm approach to North Korea, although Mr Trump’s willingness to make concessions such as canceling large-scale military exercises with South Korea has caused some concern in Tokyo.
The abduction issue often gets equal or greater attention than the missile threat in Japan, in part because Mr Abe was responsible for seeking a resolution of the problem under the administration of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
In 2002, Mr Abe traveled with Mr Koizumi to Pyongyang for the first ever Japan-North Korea summit with Kim Jong Il, the father of North Korea’s current leader. At that meeting, the elder Mr Kim admitted to abducting Japanese to train them as agents.
Five abductees were then allowed to return to Japan. Mr Kim said all others were dead, but the evidence subsequently provided by North Korea appeared faked. The dispute derailed an agreement to normalize relations that would have seen Japan provide financial compensation to North Korea for its colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Sporadic talks have been held on the abduction issue since then but without significant progress. Over the past few years, Tokyo has been one of the strongest advocates of economic and political pressure on Pyongyang. The two nations have no formal diplomatic or trade ties.
Some families of the abductees have called for Mr Abe to re-engage with North Korea, but analysts say a summit meeting would be a high-risk move for the Japanese leader. Failure to make progress could be damaging for the prime minister, who has spent much of the year under pressure from an array of political scandals.
Limited concessions made by North Korea in summit talks with South Korea and the US also raise questions about how much Mr Kim would offer Mr Abe.
“Other than a desire to collect the reparations promised long ago by Mr Koizumi, Mr Kim has no need to be too accommodating to Mr Abe’s political needs,” said Daniel Sneider, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
If North Korea were to offer new details on the abductions, Mr Abe might face the different dilemma of Pyongyang’s demands for the previously agreed payout, which could weaken the impact of international economic sanctions on North Korea. Japan has been insistent that sanctions pressure remain in place until North Korea denuclearizes.
Nonetheless, some analysts say a summit breakthrough would be a highly alluring prospect for Mr Abe, who faces a party leadership election in September amid slumping public-approval ratings.
“The abduction issue could bring a miracle to boost Mr Abe’s public-support rate,” said Tomoaki Iwai, a professor of political science at Nihon University in Tokyo.
Source: The Wall Street Journal