Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has plenty to worry about ahead of Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un next week, including the prospect of a deal that undermines Japan’s six-decade security alliance with the U.S. and leaves the island nation vulnerable to attack.
But it’s another issue that will top Abe’s agenda when he meets Trump for less than two hours at the White House on Thursday: The fate of 12 Japanese citizens abducted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Japan wants progress on the abductees to be given the same weight as demands over North Korea’s nuclear arms and missile programs in Trump’s negotiations with Kim.
“I will discuss with the president about the issues of nuclear weapons and missiles, and most importantly the abduction issue,” Abe told reporters on Wednesday before leaving. “I hope the U.S.-North Korea summit will be a success.”
While Trump pledged in April to raise the issue, Abe’s relationship with the U.S. president has deteriorated over trade. Last month, Abe hit back at Trump’s plans to impose higher tariffs on imported vehicles and metals, saying, “it’s very difficult to understand why this would be imposed on Japan, a military ally.”
Abe has made the return of the abductees a key political issue, and holds strong ties with the families involved. He has sought to strike a deal with North Korea since the 1980s, when he served as secretary for his father, then Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.
Tokyo officially lists 17 of its citizens as having been abducted by North Korea, five of whom returned home in 2002. As of April 2017, more than 12 million people had signed petitions from the families urging Abe to continue efforts to bring the rest home.
Masaru Honma is one of dozens of family members pushing for their release who wants Japan to pressure the U.S. in talks with North Korea. His younger sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was abducted by North Korean agents in 1978.
“We need Trump to ask Kim the question and get an answer,” Honma said last month at a meeting organized by the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea. “Will he return them or will he not return them?”
At their April meeting, Abe asked Trump “to take this one-in-a-million opportunity to raise the abduction issue and strongly urge its resolution.”
Trump said his administration would “do everything possible to have them brought back, and bring them back to Japan. I gave you that promise.”
North Korea has blasted Japan for repeatedly raising the issue, and says it’s been resolved. Kim’s regime claims that eight of the abductees have died and the other four were never in the country.
On Monday, North Korea’s state-run Korea Central News Agency criticized Japan for asking other countries to put pressure on Pyongyang. In a commentary, it said Japan risks becoming isolated as North Korea and called the abduction issue “rubbish.”
“The point is that Japan is bound to be ridiculed by the international community and driven out of history if it persists in escalating confrontation with the DPRK under the pretext of the already resolved ‘abduction issue,’ failing to acclimatize itself to the new situation,” KCNA said.