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North Korea Crisis

Abe seeks talks with Kim on North Korean abductions

Japan looks to capitalize on diplomatic blitz to settle decades-old issue

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean intelligence chief Suh Hoon met in Tokyo on April 29. (Photo by Taro Yokosawa)

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are exploring a possible meeting as Tokyo seeks closure on past abductions of Japanese nationals and Pyongyang sees another chance at sanctions relief.

Kim told South Korean President Moon Jae-in he was "ready for dialogue with Japan at any time," Moon said in a phone call with Abe on Sunday to relay the results of Friday's North-South summit. Abe had asked the South Korean leader to bring up the kidnappings of Japanese in the 1970s and '80s at the meeting. Moon also told Abe he would "happily" mediate between the two sides.

Suh Hoon, head of South Korea's National Intelligence Service, also briefed Abe here Sunday on the inter-Korean talks. Suh told reporters afterward that the prime minister had expressed a "deep interest" in dialogue with Pyongyang.

"Japan will fully cooperate to ensure that the North-South summit leads to peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula," Abe told the intelligence chief.

The prime minister hinted to reporters that he will initially see how the planned meeting between Kim and Donald Trump works out, hoping that a direct appeal by the U.S. president will help his case. Trump agreed in a meeting with Abe this month to bring up the abductions.

"I want to make every effort to use the opportunity afforded by the U.S.-North Korea summit to make progress on the abduction issue," Abe said.

But relying on Washington and Seoul can take Tokyo only so far. Direct talks with the North will eventually be necessary.

Abe also seeks to keep Japan from being left behind in the push for peace and denuclearization, and sees economic support as a potentially powerful bargaining chip to this end. He has repeatedly referred to the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration, signed by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korea's Kim Jong Il, which positioned diplomatic normalization as a prerequisite for economic cooperation.

Whether Abe and Kim can meet will depend on the prospects for resolving the abduction issue, a Japanese government source familiar with the situation said Sunday. Without results on that front that the Japanese public can accept, it would be difficult for Tokyo to offer the economic support Pyongyang wants. If Abe fails to secure at least a promise of an objective investigation into the kidnappings, a summit with the North could harm rather than help his government.

North Korea pledged to look into the abductions in 2014 but announced the disbanding of an investigation committee in 2016, when Japan stepped up sanctions in response to nuclear and missile tests. Abe has said he will not ease sanctions again without concrete steps toward denuclearization.

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