Japan may use the threat of economic sanctions over North Korea’s abductions of Japanese, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said Thursday.

Fukuda made the remark at a news conference following his first meeting with the five Japanese who returned to their homeland in October after being kidnapped by North Korea in 1978.

During their meeting with Fukuda, the returnees urged the government to use economic sanctions to pressure the North into letting them reunite with relatives who have been left behind in the North.

The abductees are Yasushi Chimura and his wife, Fukie; Kaoru Hasuike and his wife, Yukiko; and Hitomi Soga.

“It’s not something that Japan can decide all by itself — we have to take coordinated action with other countries involved,” Fukuda said. “But depending on how North Korea responds, we will of course have to consider that option.”

The five also had their first chance to meet with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“Meeting with the prime minister gave us hope,” Yasushi Chimura told reporters. “He said he will discuss what can be done on the abduction issue with (U.S.) President George W.) Bush.”

Koizumi is scheduled to meet with Bush on May 23 at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Koizumi promised the five that the government, along with the U.S. and South Korea, will continue to press North Korea to let the abductees’ families come to Japan.

While thanking top government officials for meeting with them, the returnees also voiced frustration over the lack of tougher measures to effect these family reunions.

“I was glad to hear clearly that the abduction issue will not be left behind, but I wanted to hear more about what Japan will do on its own initiative, rather than discussing the matter with other countries,” Kaoru Hasuike said.

Recalling the day he returned to Japan after 24 years in North Korea, Hasuike said he was unable to express his feelings because he was at a loss over what to say or do.

“But now I have come to decide to stay in Japan on my own will, and say publicly that I just want our children and our normal life back here,” he said.

The returnees have asked the government to arrange for their North Korean-born children and Soga’s American husband to come to Japan, while the families of other abduction victims are demanding that the North present more convincing evidence over the fate of their missing kin.

During a summit in September, North Korea admitted it had abducted 13 Japanese and said eight of them are now dead.

But the families of the eight have refused to accept North Korea’s version of events.