Japan says South Korea's Moon promised help to resolve North Korea abduction issue

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan said on Friday that South Korean President Moon Jae-in had promised to help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resolve the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea and agreed to keep maximum pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile programmes.

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gestures as he makes a speech at an opening of a new session of parliament in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

Abe spoke with Moon by telephone, the first time the two have talked directly since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un asked to meet U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Abe explained to Moon that Japan is seeking a resolution to the abduction issue as well as the nuclear weapons and missile programmes,” an official in the Japanese prime minister’s office said.

North Korea admitted in 2002 it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train spies, and five of them returned to Japan. Tokyo suspects that hundreds more may have been taken.

Tokyo’s insistence on including discussion of the abductions by North Korean agents could cause friction between Japan, South Korea and the United States if Seoul or Washington were willing to cut a denuclearisation deal with Pyongyang separate from any abduction pact.

“Our understanding from the conversation is that President Moon understands our position regarding the abduction issue,” the official said.

Abe also reiterated his stance that maximum pressure must be kept on North Korea and that promises were not enough.

“Abe told Moon that North Korea halting its nuclear and missile programs alone is not enough, but that it must take concrete action, such as allowing IAEA inspectors in,” the official added.

Signs of easing tension with North Korea began during the Winter Olympics last month, when the North sent a high-level delegation to the South for the Games, after more than a year of rising alarm over the North’s nuclear weapon and missile tests.

Abe met South Korean National Intelligence Service chief Suh Hoon on Tuesday to discuss a summit between Trump and Kim by the end of May. Moon plans to meet Kim by the end of April.

Japan has been more guarded about those talks than South Korea, and wants any discussion to include ways to resolve a dispute over the return of those abducted by North Korean agents.

Abe has made the abductions a keystone of his political career, vowing not to rest until all 13 of the people North Korea admitted to kidnapping have returned and the isolated state divulges information about the others Japan suspects were taken to train North Korean spies.

Reporting by Tim Kelly; Writing by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez