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N Korea at crossroads

Next on Kim Jong Un's to-befriend list: Shinzo Abe

Summit could cost Japan $10bn but bring closure to abduction issue

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  (Kyodo, KCNA)

SEOUL/TOKYO -- As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un goes from one summit to another, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is waiting for his chance.

Analysts say that as Kim plays Asian and other leaders off one another, strengthening his hand along the way, he might be in position to extract more than $10 billion from Japan that he can then use as seed money to get its underdeveloped economy growing.

Now that he has gotten the world's attention, Kim wants more than assurances that his regime will be left alone to run North Korea. As he goes about normalizing relations with his neighbors, Kim is also looking for financial aid down the road.

Kim expects a particularly big payday from Japan, which colonized the Korean Peninsula for 35 years during the early 20th century. South Korea received reparations from Japan in the 1960s.

Abe, meanwhile, wants to know what happened to all 17 nationals the Japanese government says were kidnapped and taken to North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

"For North Korea, it is good to make four powerful countries compete against one another" as they vie for Pyongyang's attention, said Cheon Seong-whun, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, referring to the U.S., China, Japan and Russia. "In its talks with Japan, North Korea expects economic gains by signaling that it is willing to discuss the abductees."

Abe has said he would like to meet with Kim over this issue and to work on normalizing diplomatic ties. He made the declaration earlier this month during a press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington. The Japanese prime minister made it clear that one-on-one talks with Kim need to be held.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Pyongyang has been eager to normalize its relations with the U.S. and Japan since the early 1990s, when South Korea established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and China.

The U.S. and Japan "should have normalized ties with North Korea earlier," said Yang, a member of an advisory group to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. "Now Kim Jong Un is after more than security guarantees for his regime."

It is unclear how Japan-North Korea talks might develop. The abductee issue has been festering for decades. In 2002 and 2004, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met in attempts to resolve the issue. Five abductees were repatriated in 2002, after Kim Jong Il admitted to the kidnappings for the first time during a summit with Koizumi in Pyongyang.

Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul, said North Korea may demand at least 11 trillion won ($9.9 billion) in colonization reparations, based on the amount Tokyo handed over to South Korea in 1965.

"North Korea will want diplomatic normalization and massive economic aid [from Japan]," Bong said. "South Korea received $800 million in 1965, equivalent to 11 trillion won today. Pyongyang will use this for economic development, which has become its new focus."

It was not until 1997, when the victims' families formed a campaign group, that the abductee issue gained traction.

The most prominent case is that of Megumi Yokota, who was 13 when she was kidnapped in 1977. Her tragedy, and the struggle of her aging parents to locate their daughter, has won widespread sympathy in Japan, making Megumi a symbol of North Korea's cruel abductions.

The Japanese government says North Korea has also abducted 516 South Koreans who remain unaccounted for.

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