In last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe replaced some of the key personnel responsible for handling the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals — again demonstrating his determination to resolve the decadeslong problem.
Abe’s final term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and thus prime minister, is set to end in September 2021.
He is said to be desperately hoping to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to pave the way for a resolution to the abduction issue, which he calls one of his administration’s most important policy challenges.
But Kim has signaled no intention to accept a meeting with Abe, and a resolution to the issue remains nowhere in sight.
“In an all-Japan effort, my administration must come together to resolve the abduction issue,” Abe said at a meeting in Tokyo on Monday with family members of abduction victims.
Among those at the meeting was Sakie Yokota, whose daughter, Megumi, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1977 at the age of 13. “We have no time to waste,” Abe stressed, reiterating his wish to hold a meeting with Kim at an early date.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who was retained in the positions of top government spokesman and minister for the abduction issue through the Cabinet shake-up, has said he will “continue working hard (to resolve the issue) under the prime minister.”
For Abe, the abduction issue is his life’s work. He has been tackling since 1988, when he was a secretary to a lawmaker, and takes pride in being one of the first politicians to start tackling the issue.
With little progress having been made in Japan’s negotiations with Russia on their decades-old territorial dispute over four islands off Hokkaido, Abe is eager to achieve a resolution on the abduction issue before the end of his term as LDP president so it becomes one of his political legacies.
To accelerate efforts on the abduction issue, Abe appointed Shigeru Kitamura, former director of Cabinet intelligence, as head of the secretariat for the government’s National Security Council in place of Shotaro Yachi.
A former National Police Agency official, Kitamura is a trusted aide to Abe and is believed to have repeatedly held secret talks with North Korean officials under the prime minister’s instructions.
Abe’s choice of Toshimitsu Motegi as new foreign minister is thought to reflect his high esteem for Motegi’s negotiating skills, which recently led Japan to reach a broad trade agreement with the United States.
The road ahead remains tough, however.
People close to Abe initially believed that momentum for solving the abduction issue would be created once progress was made in U.S.-North Korea talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
But such optimistic views have been shattered, with Pyongyang having recently conducted repeating launches of short-range ballistic missiles.
“North Korea is not taking Japan seriously,” said a Foreign Ministry official.
At Monday’s meeting with Abe, Yokota, who is in her 80s, pleaded to the Japanese government to resolve the abduction issue quickly. “Please, give us a day when we can see our loved ones while we are in good health,” she said.