Japan plans to sound out North Korea about holding foreign ministerial talks on the fringes of a regional conference in early August in Myanmar, a Japanese government source said Sunday.
Japan hopes to make use of the meeting between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and North Korean counterpart Ri Su Yong, if the latter attends the ASEAN Regional Forum, to inject life into the stagnant abduction issue.
If the meeting between Kishida and Ri, known to be a close aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, goes through, it would be the highest level of contact made between Japan and the North since Kim launched his regime in April 2012.
According to the source, there is a good chance of holding the bilateral meeting if North Korea becomes more open to dialogue.
If it happens, Kishida is expected to urge the North to take concrete steps toward abandoning its nuclear weapons development program in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions, the source said.
Ri, who became North Korea’s foreign minister in April, was North Korea’s ambassador to Switzerland and served as one of Kim’s guardians when the young leader was a teenager attending classes in Switzerland.
The ARF meeting, which gathers members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and their dialogue partners, is the only international conference where the foreign ministers of Japan and North Korea meet.
In July 2004, then-Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and counterpart Paek Nam Sun met in Indonesia and agreed to arrange a reunion there for former Japanese abductee Hitomi Soga, who had left her U.S. husband and two daughters behind in North Korea when she was repatriated.
Kawaguchi and Paek were in Jakarta to attend the ARF.
The abduction issue remains a major stumbling block in normalizing diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang, which admitted in 2002 to having abducted 13 Japanese and claimed that eight of them had died.
Japan officially lists 17 people as abducted by North Korea but suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in many more disappearances. Five of the 17 were repatriated to Japan in 2002, including Soga.