TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering meeting with Kim Jong Un this fall, responding to the North Korean leader's openness to dialogue expressed during a summit with President Donald Trump this week.
"We see the U.S.-North Korea summit as an opening," Abe said Thursday in a meeting with family members of Japanese nationals abducted by the rogue state decades ago. "Japan should squarely face North Korea to resolve the issue," he added. Trump has said he raised the issue with Kim.
Japanese government sources confirm the two sides are discussing times and places for a meeting. The first opportunity seems to be Russia's Eastern Economic Forum, held in Vladivostok in mid-September, that Abe is expected to attend. President Vladimir Putin repeated his invitation for Kim Jong Un to visit Russia in a meeting Thursday with Kim Yong Nam, leader of North Korea's rubber-stamp legislature. Mediating a Tokyo-Pyongyang summit would let Putin tout influence over North Korea.
The U.N. General Assembly, which convenes in late September in New York, provides another option.
Though Pyongyang has also been suggested as a possible venue, Abe and his aides are leery of having the prime minister visit North Korea before progress is made on the abduction issue. Abe's political standing would suffer if he returned from the rogue state without concrete results, making a third country a more acceptable choice.
Fumio Shimizu, deputy director general at the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, met Thursday with the head of a research institute affiliated with North Korea's Foreign Ministry, the Japanese side said. The meeting came during a conference in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar.
Though denuclearization would end the economic sanctions against North Korea, resolving the abduction issue with Japan offers Pyongyang the only path to real assistance, diplomatic sources say Trump told Kim.
The president has previously told Abe that denuclearization and the abduction issue should be negotiated simultaneously. After a phone call with Trump on Tuesday, Abe said the president had "clearly communicated my ideas to Kim Jong Un."
Since Trump said in March that he would meet with Kim, the prime minister has shifted focus gradually from pressure to dialogue, with Japan offering economic and humanitarian aid to get Pyongyang to the table.
Tokyo is prepared to pay the initial costs for restarting International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in North Korea, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday. Japan, which contributed $500,000 when the IAEA sent inspectors to North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2007, considers such inspections crucial to the ultimate goal of complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.
Japan also could provide rice and medicine via international organizations. During bilateral consultations in Stockholm four years ago, Tokyo promised to consider such humanitarian aid at an "appropriate time." North Korea agreed to look into the fates of Japanese abductees, but later disbanded the investigative committee. Suga said Japan "will continue asking North Korea to abide by the Stockholm agreement."
Economic aid for developing North Korean infrastructure is on the table as well. The bilateral Pyongyang Declaration of 2002 named grant aid and low interest loans as examples of Japanese help after normalizing diplomatic relations in the future. When Japan and South Korea established ties in 1965, Tokyo handed over $500 million in economic aid -- equivalent to $10 billion in today's dollars.
Yet Abe cannot commit so much without public support back home.
"Even after the U.S.-North Korea summit, our stance remains that we cannot normalize relations without a resolution on the abduction, nuclear and missile issues," said a Foreign Ministry official here.