By Agence France-Presse
After formal meetings with Japanese leaders Monday, President Donald Trump will sit down with relatives of civilians kidnapped decades ago by North Korean spies.
Japan suspects dozens of people who are still missing were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s to train their own spies in the Japanese language and culture.
The abductions have become an emotional symbol of the enmity between Tokyo and Pyongyang, and Japan has pressed Trump to seek answers on the fate of the missing during his talks with North Korea.
– How many taken? –
In 2002, North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese civilians, but the government in Tokyo believes at least 17 were taken to train Pyongyang’s agents.
A month later, five were allowed to return to Japan. Pyongyang insists the other eight are dead but has not produced cast-iron evidence.
One of those said to have died was Megumi Yokota, kidnapped on her way home from school in 1977 aged only 13 -– the youngest among the 17 officially listed as abductees by the Japanese government.
In 2004, North Korea handed over cremated remains it claimed were Yokota’s. However, Tokyo said DNA tests conducted in Japan proved the claim to be untrue.
There are strong suspicions in Japan that dozens of other citizens were also snatched by Pyongyang.
Japanese police say there are 800 missing people for whom the possibility of being kidnapped by the hermit state cannot be ruled out.
Japan is far from being the only country affected by North Korean abductions.
A 2014 UN report on human rights in North Korea estimated that 200,000 people from other countries have been abducted over the decades.
Most of them were South Koreans left stranded after the 1950-1953 Korean War, but hundreds of others from around the world — including women from Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Romania, and France — were taken or disappeared while visiting the country between the 1960s and 1980s, the report said.
More recently, North Korea abducted a number of its own nationals and South Koreans from China, it said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says resolving the issue of Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens is a top priority and even suggested meeting North Korea’s Kim Jung Un for direct talks to resolve the situation.
He has regularly raised the issue with Trump and the meeting is likely aimed at keeping the plight of the abductees front and center in the US president’s mind as he weighs the next steps in talks with Pyongyang.
Yokota’s parents, Shigeru and Sakie, who are in their eighties, also met President Barack Obama when he visited Japan in 2014.
Under an agreement brokered in Stockholm in May 2014, North Korea undertook to reinvestigate all abductions of Japanese citizens in what appeared to be a significant breakthrough on an issue that has long hampered Tokyo’s relations with Pyongyang.
But there has been almost no progress since then, and failed talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi have sparked a fresh spike in tensions.
Still, Trump sounded a conciliatory note towards Pyongyang on Monday, saying he felt “lots of good things will come with North Korea”.