The government has been facing growing internal calls to overhaul its policy on North Korea by allowing talks on economic aid to precede the delayed effort to resolve the abduction issue, government sources said.
While North Korea has shown no signs of backing down from claims that the issue, which dates from the 1970s and 1980s, has been settled, Japan has maintained it will not normalize diplomatic relations and extend economic assistance unless the past kidnappings are resolved.
The proposed policy shift, which still faces strong opposition in the government, would focus on building mutual trust before paving the way for further talks on the abductions, the sources said Friday.
Since returning to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made resolving the abduction issue one of his many priorities. He expressed a desire to engage in direct talks with North Korea after U.S. President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korea’s leader.
The government is expected to decide how to approach North Korea depending on progress in the ongoing denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea, the sources said.
A series of meetings have been held at the Prime Minister’s Office since April to discuss Tokyo’s strategy to get Pyongyang to the negotiating table, but no decision has been made.
The sources said one of the participants argued over the course of the meetings that Japan needs to foster ties with North Korea through talks on economic cooperation. Infrastructure-building and natural resource development are seen as potential areas of cooperation.
But opponents have said such an approach would call into question the seriousness of the Abe administration, which has placed its “highest priority” on the abduction issue, the sources said.
The brainstorming comes at a time when expectations are growing for major progress on Pyongyang’s denuclearization following the Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.
Washington has told Pyongyang during bilateral talks that its denuclearization will pave the way for Tokyo to extend economic assistance, the sources said.
The Japanese government officially lists 17 people as having been abducted by the North. Five of them were allowed to return in 2002, but Pyongyang maintains eight of the others died and four never entered the country.
Japan has previously changed its negotiating tactics, but the shift did not result in a major breakthrough. Tokyo proposed during talks in November 2005 that they discuss multiple issues in parallel and set up subcommittees tasked with Pyongyang’s abductions, security and the normalization of ties.
North Korea is suffering from a weakening economy, according to an estimate released last month by South Korea’s central bank.
The North’s economy contracted at the sharpest rate in two decades in 2017, which is a clear sign that international sanctions imposed to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs have hit growth hard.
Gross domestic product in North Korea last year shrank 3.5 percent from the previous year, marking the biggest contraction since the 6.5 percent drop in 1997, when the isolated nation was going through a devastating famine, the Bank of Korea said.
Industrial production, which accounts for about a third of its output, dropped 8.5 percent, marking the steepest decline since 1997 as factory output collapsed due to restrictions of flows of oil and other energy resources into the country. Output from the agriculture and construction industries fell 1.3 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.