PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took up the issue of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs when he shook hands and briefly spoke with the North’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, on Friday during a reception dinner ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the government said.
During the chat, Abe told Kim of Japan’s stance on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development as well as Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang decades ago, according to the Foreign Ministry.
In talks with reporters at his hotel later, Abe said: “I told (Kim Yong Nam) about our thoughts and positions, although I can’t elaborate.”
At a reception dinner prior to the opening ceremony in the evening, local TV footage showed Kim Yong Nam shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and with Abe.
Under the current administration, Abe’s adviser Isao Iijima met with Kim, the North’s 90-year-old nominal head of state, in May 2013.
It is extremely rare for a Japanese prime minister to communicate with a high-ranking official from North Korea’s ruling party. This was Abe’s first contact with a senior official representing the current North Korean regime, led by Kim Jong Un.
The last time a Japanese leader visited North Korea was in 2004, when Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il, was the country’s leader.
Abe was visiting South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Games and to hold talks with Moon.
Kim, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, is leading North Korea’s delegation to the Olympics. Its participation in the event has been viewed as a sign of easing ties between the two Koreas.
Abe has stressed the importance of trilateral cooperation involving the United States to address the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.
His administration is also seeking to secure the return of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents decades ago.
Earlier Friday, Abe and Moon affirmed their stance of raising pressure on the North Korea in talks ahead of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
While preparations for the Pyeongchang Games have involved dialogue and displays of unity between the two Koreas, Abe said he and Moon repeated that there is a need to continue to press the North over its nuclear weapons and missile development programs, as agreed between Japan and the United States.
“North Korea must recognize that the strong ties between Japan, the United States and South Korea will never waver,” he told reporters after meeting with Moon.
“We need all U.N. member states to strictly enforce Security Council resolutions and raise pressure to the maximum degree until North Korea (agrees to) change its policies and comes to us seeking dialogue,” he said.
The meeting came amid signs of easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula ahead of the Winter Olympics. Moon is pursuing denuclearization of the peninsula through inter-Korea dialogue and using the international sports event to promote this policy.
After Kim Jong Un extended an olive branch in his New Year’s address, the North and South resumed official talks and agreed to form a joint women’s ice hockey team and march together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony.
Earlier Friday, the North’s high-level delegation, which includes Kim Yong Nam and Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, arrived in South Korea.
Tokyo and Washington believe that through dialogue with Seoul, Pyongyang is aiming to buy time to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles further to weaken the three-way alliance.
The North has refrained from further provocations since testing an intercontinental ballistic missile in November. But speculation is growing it might fire off another if South Korea and the United States resume joint military drills after the Paralympics in March.
On the eve of the opening ceremony, the North carried out a large military parade in Pyongyang to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army and displayed what appeared to be ICBMs.
Japan and South Korea have been at odds since the Moon administration announced in January internal findings on how the comfort women pact was reached before its signing under the administration of his impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
While describing the deal as “seriously flawed,” Moon has said Seoul will not seek to renegotiate it, though he did express hope for a fresh Japanese apology to the victims, who were forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II. Abe is expected to urge Moon to steadily implement the deal, arguing that Japan has been carrying out its promises, Japanese government officials said. Under the deal, Japan deposited ¥1 billion ($9.1 million) into a South Korean foundation set up to support the surviving victims, and Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to them. South Korea, meanwhile, said it “will strive to solve” the issue of a statue symbolizing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Abe, who cited the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics as one of the reasons for his Pyeongchang visit, was to meet with Japanese athletes Saturday before returning home. Moon’s mention of the apology initially caused Abe to express doubt about accepting Seoul’s invitation to attend the opening ceremony