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International Relations

Abduction issue falls by the wayside of North-South summit

Moon offers no promises to raise topic with Kim despite calls from Japan

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on April 11. The Japanese have been pressing him to raise the abduction issue with the North.   © AP

SEOUL -- Despite Japan's call for South Korea to bring up the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and '80s at an inter-Korean summit planned for April 27, the topic looks to remain low on Seoul's priority list.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the South's presidential Blue House on Wednesday. Cooperation between South Korea and Japan is more important now than ever with North Korea's coming summits with the South and the U.S., Moon told Kono.

"We want to deepen the partnership between Japan and South Korea, as well as our trilateral partnership with the U.S., to make efforts toward denuclearizing North Korea," Kono replied.

Kono told reporters afterward that he asked Moon to discuss the abduction issue at his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But he declined to comment on Moon's response, citing diplomatic protocol.

Kono also said he and Moon agreed on the need to continue exerting maximum pressure on the North, and that South Korea should not reward Pyongyang simply for agreeing to a dialogue.

Moon promised to continue cooperating with Japan toward resolving its concerns regarding the North, including on the abduction issue, the South Korean government said. But it did not say whether Moon agreed to Kono's request, or on maintaining pressure on the North.

The Japanese foreign minister made the same request at a meeting with South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha earlier Wednesday. But Kang reportedly replied that she did not know at this time which specific topics the summit would cover.

Japan fears that the abduction issue will be put on the back burner as North Korea engages in talks with the outside world, especially since it has no scheduled summit with the North and can only make contact through the U.S. and South Korea. But some other countries, like China and Russia, worry that raising the matter could hinder progress on the nuclear and missile issues.

South Korea also does not consider the abduction issue a top priority. More than 500 of its own citizens kidnapped by the North after the Korean War have yet to return home. But that number is dwarfed by the nearly 60,000 South Koreans who are still trying to reconnect with family in North Korea.

Past South Korean leaders did not actively respond to Japanese calls for a comprehensive resolution on the North that covers the nuclear, missile and abduction issues. Moon probably sees the abductions as a problem to be settled directly between Japan and North Korea.

But Moon wants to foster a conciliatory mood around North Korea, and supports the idea of a Tokyo-Pyongyang dialogue. North-South relations will move forward only if the North's ties with Japan also improve, Moon told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a phone call on March 16.

Meanwhile, North Korea is issuing warning shots against Japan's calls for continued pressure. The Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece for the ruling Workers' Party, said in an article Wednesday that Japan is feeling the heat because it is isolated in the region.

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