SEOUL — Japan’s government was left Tuesday without what it wanted most from the Singapore summit: a clear declaration that North Korea would reopen talks over the abductions of Japanese citizens decades ago.
But Japanese leaders appeared satisfied with what they got: President Trump’s public promise that he raised the issue with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that the North was “working on that.”
Even the vague comment by Trump saved Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a major political embarrassment after he personally lobbied Trump to champion the issue. “I highly value the fact President Trump mentioned things that I had told him the other day,” Abe told reporters. “I’d like to thank President Trump that he raised the abduction issue clearly.”
For Japan, the abductions remain a major obstacle to joining the United States and South Korea in the growing engagement with the North.
Leaving the abduction issue off the statement — as well as any direct mention of human rights abuses by the North — could add some political pressures from opponents of Abe, who has built an image as one of the world leaders closest to Trump. Later, Trump said he discussed rights issues with Kim, but gave no details.
Yoshimasa Suenobu, a professor at Tokai University and a commentator on TV Asahi, said he did not believe Abe expected the abduction issue to be part of any declaration.
“I think it’s good enough that President Trump kept his word and mentioned it. Things weren’t going anywhere, but thanks to two odd men [Trump and Kim], now they’ve started moving again,” he added. “So the outcome wasn’t the greatest, but Trump did the least he could do.”
North Korea has admitted to kidnapping 13 people from Japan in the 1970s and 1980s to train as spies. Pyongyang allowed five of the abductees to return to Japan with their families in 2002, but it insists that the eight others died. Japan suspects hundreds more may have been taken captive.
Trump told reporters that he “absolutely” raised the issue. But he gave no indications of Kim’s response or what actions the North might take.
“They are going to be working on that. We didn’t put it down in the document, but it’s going to be worked on,” Trump said in the news conference after the summit.
North Korea has claimed the abduction issue has been “resolved” and accused Japan of trying to disrupt its attempts at outreach to South Korea and the United States. In response, Abe has said Japan will not normalize relations with Pyongyang or offer aid unless a full accounting of the abductions is conducted.
As recently as last week, Abe held meetings with Trump in Washington to appeal that the abduction issue be added to the Singapore summit agenda. On Saturday in Canada, Abe called for direct talks with North Korea “to resolve the abduction issue.”
Sakie Yokota, mother of abductee Megumi Yokota, told broadcaster NHK that she felt a “miraculous thing happened” in Singapore to possibly revive the abduction issue with North Korea.
Shigeo Iizuka, the head of a group representing abductees’ families and whose sister Yaeko was abducted, also told NHK that “the Japanese abduction issue is getting attention again,” adding: “We welcome it and have high hopes.”
Former abductee Kaoru Hasuike told Fuji News Network he was a little disappointed that the issue wasn’t in the joint declaration. “But he said he had mentioned it, so I think we will learn more about it soon,” he said. “Since the agreement is signed, Japan should accept it and take this momentum to realize a summit between Japan and North Korea.”
Other historical disputes loom over North Korea’s eventual normalization in the region, including issues between nominal allies.
South Korean activists have held round-the-clock vigils outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul seeking to keep alive the memory of Korean women used as sex slaves by Japanese forces during World War II. Abe’s government also is angered by South Korea’s decision to reopen discussions over a 2015 deal that was intended as a “final and irreversible” conclusion to sex slave reparations and other claims.
In Beijing, North Korea’s closest ally in the region, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said it would consider easing sanctions, but only if Pyongyang met conditions laid out in United Nations resolutions.
“China has consistently held that sanctions are not the goal in themselves. The Security Council’s actions should support and conform to the efforts of current diplomatic talks toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and promote a political solution for the peninsula,” spokesman Geng Zhuang said.
China’s enforcement of sanctions is a linchpin to keeping economic pressures on North Korea, which has depended on Beijing as a lifeline for trade and assistance for decades.
Lu Chao, a Korea expert at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, said the statement in Singapore reflected China’s demands and goals.
“It’s historic progress, and we can believe that the peninsula has begun to start toward peace,” he said.
Oda reported from Tokyo.