BEIJING – North Korea may be carefully watching who will succeed Shinzo Abe after the Japanese prime minister, who had made resolving the abduction issue a major goal in his political career, expressed his intention to step down on Friday, diplomats said.
“North Korea might be happy to hear that Abe will resign as he has taken a tough posture” against Pyongyang since he became prime minister in December 2012 following his first one-year stint in the post between 2006 and 2007, one of the diplomats said.
Abe, who this week became Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in terms of consecutive days in office, has called tackling the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s his “life’s work.”
After five abductees returned to Japan in 2002, Japan has been seeking the return of 12 others whom it has officially recognized as having been abducted by North Korean agents. Tokyo also suspects North Korean involvement in other Japanese citizens’ disappearances.
But North Korea has claimed that the abduction issue has already been resolved, saying eight of them — including the iconic abductee Megumi Yokota — have died and the other four never entered the nation.
The diplomat said leader Kim Jong Un may be “interested in whether the next Japanese prime minister will stick to the issue like Abe.”
The Abe family’s association with the abduction issue goes back decades. In 1988, when the parents of a university student who went missing in Europe and was believed to have been abducted by Pyongyang visited the office of Abe’s father, former Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe.
Following his father’s death in 1991, Abe was elected to the lower house in 1993.
In September 2002, Abe accompanied then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korea as a deputy chief Cabinet secretary and asked him to take a hardline stance toward the country, which helped draw words of apology for the abductions from the nation’s then leader, Kim Jong Il.
Abe has recently voiced readiness to hold a summit with Kim Jong Un “without conditions” — a shift from his previous position that any meeting should yield progress on the abduction issue, which had been of overriding importance to Japan.
The prime minister also sought cooperation from U.S. President Donald Trump in resolving the long-standing issue, while cultivating a personal rapport with him. But an Abe-Kim summit did not materialize.
A Japanese government source said Kim was apparently unwilling to meet with Abe while denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States have stalled over sanctions relief.