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Abduction Issue May Preclude Resumption of Japan-North Korea Talks 

FILE - A woman walks past a public television screen in Tokyo, displaying file footage of North Korean missile launches during a broadcast about an early-morning North Korean missile launch that prompted an evacuation alert when it flew over northeastern Japan.
FILE - A woman walks past a public television screen in Tokyo, displaying file footage of North Korean missile launches during a broadcast about an early-morning North Korean missile launch that prompted an evacuation alert when it flew over northeastern Japan.

For a possible summit between Pyongyang and Tokyo to be successful, it would have to address the issues of abduction and North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, said analysts.

Although Pyongyang refuses to engage in talks with Washington and Seoul, it is showing a rare openness to talks with Japan, which has been working closely with South Korea in a tripartite pact with the U.S.

Kim Yo Jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Pyongyang is open to improving relations with Tokyo and dangled a prospect for a possible summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. But she said there are caveats.

She continued in a statement released through North Korea’s state-run KCNA on February 15 that Japan would have to put aside the abduction issue that Pyongyang views as “settled” and its nuclear and missile programs that have “nothing to do” with mending ties.

“Declaring the abduction issue resolved is a nonstarter for Japan,” said Nick Szechenyi, a senior fellow and Japan chair and deputy director for Asia at the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS), on Wednesday.

“There is a solid rationale for Japan-North Korea diplomacy” as “China is missing in action on the North Korea challenge and Kim Jong Un is ignoring South Korea and the United States,” he told VOA via email.

“Japan is the only player with a chance to engage, but Kim would have to address the abduction issue as well as his ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs,” Szechenyi added.

For Tokyo, the abduction issue remains unresolved, and it has long sought to repatriate Japanese abductees it believes to be remaining in North Korea. Japan identified 17 of its citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Among them, North Korea sent five people back to Japan after then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, met in Pyongyang in 2002 and announced a joint declaration to normalize relations.

North Korea claims eight of the remaining 12 died and has said that four people listed by Japan were never abducted.

'Integral part'

Shihoko Goto, Asia program director at the Wilson Center, said, “For Tokyo, the abduction issue must be an integral part of any discussion with Pyongyang.”

She continued via email on Wednesday, “A meeting would also include addressing denuclearization and North Korea’s ambitions.”

Kim Yo Jong did not mention in her statement last week what Pyongyang seeks from Tokyo, other than to highlight the importance of mending their ties.

At a press briefing on February 16, Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary who also serves as the minister in charge of the abduction issue, said Kim Yo Jong’s remarks on the abduction issue as settled was “totally unacceptable,” according to Japanese press reports.

But Hayashi said in a statement he would welcome Kishida’s possible visit to Pyongyang, the report continued.

Kishida underlined the urgency for building top-level consultations with North Korea, with a goal of having a summit with Kim, when he spoke to parliament on January 30.

“The abduction issue is one of the highest-priority issues for my administration” and “nuclear and missile development by North Korea is totally unacceptable,” said Kishida as he stressed “realizing summit-level talks” with Kim.

James Przystup, senior fellow and Japan chair at the Hudson Institute, said, “For Kishida to agree to a summit without demonstrating progress on resolving the abductee issue would be a diplomatic and political disaster for him and Japan,” and “the U.S. will support his efforts.”

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told VOA’s Korean Service on February 16 that the U.S. supports Japan’s outreach to North Korea and its trilateral cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul remains “strong.”

Przystup continued via email on Wednesday, “From a U.S., ROK and Japan perspective, denuclearization should be on any summit agenda, but I can’t see North Korea agreeing to take that issue up. Pyongyang has made very clear repeatedly that the nuclear and missile programs will continue.” Republic of Korea (ROK) is the official English name for South Korea.

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said at a press briefing on Tuesday that “full denuclearization” is the U.S. policy goal for North Korea.

Szechenyi at CSIS said, “It is hard to imagine Kim Jong Un uttering the term ‘denuclearization’ at this point, but that is still the objective.”

He continued, “At the very least, North Korea would have to consider halting the current cycle of provocations for the dialogue to be meaningful.”

Andrew Yeo, the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at Brookings Institution, said via email on Wednesday, “At this stage, a Kishida-Kim summit seems unlikely, although Japan may be exploring its options.”

He continued via email on Wednesday, “It’ll be important for the Kishida government to consult with counterparts in Seoul and Washington to ensure that North Korea doesn’t try to divide allies.”

Jiha Ham and Sangjin Cho contributed to this report.