Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “unconditionally” in a bid to restore diplomatic ties between the two foes, a daily newspaper reported Thursday.
In an interview with the Sankei Shimbun on Wednesday, Abe said: “I want to meet Chairman Kim Jong Un unconditionally and talk with him frankly with an open mind.”
Abe, seen as a foreign policy hawk, has recently softened his rhetoric toward Pyongyang, calling for a summit with Kim to resolve an emotional row over past kidnappings of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents.
“It is more than important for our country to be proactive in tackling the issue,” Abe also said in the interview.
“We can’t break the shell of mutual distrust between Japan and North Korea unless I directly face Mr. Kim,” he said. “I hope that he is a leader who can make a decision strategically and flexibly on what is best for his nation.”
Tokyo has been one of the most hawkish of the major powers on reclusive North Korea, and has been on the receiving end of some of Pyongyang’s harshest rhetoric — as well as missiles launched over its territory.
Until late 2017, North Korea repeatedly tested missiles that flew toward or over Japan, sparking warnings blared from loudspeakers and stoking calls for a tough stance against Pyongyang.
However, Japan now finds itself battling to keep itself relevant on the fast-moving North Korea issue as Kim expands his diplomatic circle.
Kim met Russian President Vladimir Putin last week after multiple meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Abe also told the Sankei that he had asked Trump to help resolve the abduction issue when they held talks at the White House on Friday.
Trump will hold another meeting with Abe in late May when he visits Japan as the first foreign head of state to meet Emperor Naruhito, who acceded the throne Wednesday.
Tokyo believes North Korean agents kidnapped Japanese nationals to train its spies in language and customs in the 1970s and 1980s.
After years of denial, North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had taken 13 Japanese civilians and released what it said were the five survivors, saying eight others had died.
Campaigners, however, believe the disappearance of up to 470 Japanese may be linked to North Korea.
North Korean authorities have given no public indication of any willingness to meet Abe.
The comments by Abe came after his government removed a reference to applying “maximum pressure” on North Korea in an annual foreign policy report released late last month. The report also stopped short of explicitly claiming ownership of the disputed Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.
The concessions are apparently aimed at easing diplomatic tensions as Abe works to resolve long-standing issues with both countries while in office.
In its Diplomatic Bluebook 2019, the Foreign Ministry said North Korea had not taken any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles despite repeated calls to do so from the international community.
But the ministry used less condemnatory language than it did in last year’s report, which had said Japan was working closely with countries including the United States to “maximize pressure on North Korea by all available means” as its growing arsenal posed an “unprecedented, grave and imminent threat.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the language used in this year’s annual report was chosen after taking into consideration “significant developments” on North Korean nuclear issues, such as the two summits between Kim and Trump.
Japan has maintained its sanctions against North Korea. But the Abe government has also been making conciliatory gestures, such as not sponsoring a resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses at a U.N. panel, apparently in hopes of engaging with Pyongyang and resolving the abduction issue.