TOKYO: Japan is eyeing a meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, government sources said on Thursday, while the foreign minister said a summit would have to bring results on the issue of Japanese abducted by Pyongyang.
Abe, his public support hit by scandals, has adopted as his top domestic priority the issue of Japanese abducted to be trained as spies, vowing to withhold economic assistance until it is resolved, along with denuclearisation.
In 2002, North Korea admitted that it kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s, and five returned home. Abe has said he will not rest until the return of the rest, an issue he pressed U.S. President Donald Trump to raise at this week's summit with Kim.
Japan believes 17 of its citizens were abducted, five of whom were repatriated. Eight are said by North Korea to have died, while four never entered the country.
Japanese media said one possibility was for Abe to visit Pyongyang, perhaps as early as August.
Speculation about a Kim-Abe summit emerges periodically, especially when Abe's support weakens, but a ruling party lawmaker said in March any such meeting would have to follow a North-South Korea summit and a U.S.-North Korea summit.
Government sources, including one directly involved with the matter, told Reuters that Japanese officials plan to discuss a summit with North Korean officials at a conference on Northeast Asian security set for Thursday and Friday in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.
Another possibility could be for Abe to meet Kim on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum to be held in September in Vladivostok, a source with knowledge of the matter said, although timing could be difficult, with Abe facing a ruling party leadership election the same month.
In Seoul, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told a news conference that Abe was willing to resolve the issue through "various channels and routes" with North Korea.
"If the leaders meet we need to have a summit meeting which would lead to resolution of the issue and we will make coordination going forward."
TOO SOON FOR SUMMIT?
On Thursday, Abe met the families of the missing Japanese, renewing his pledge to bring home their loved ones.
"Using the U.S.-North Korea leaders' meeting as an opportunity, we will face up to North Korea and solve this," he told the group, many of them elderly and frail.
Shigeo Iizuka, whose sister Yaeko Taguchi was kidnapped in 1978, leaving behind two infants in a creche, said he was glad the issue had been raised with Kim but pointed to North Korea's history of breaking its promises.
"The problem is there's a long history of things just being dragged out, and of deception," Iizuka told a news conference, referring to instances when North Korea reneged on promises to provide information on the missing Japanese, most recently in 2014.
"We need to make sure there's nothing like that and things are done right this time ... nothing hasty."
(Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)