North Korea says Japan’s prime minister offered to meet with leader Kim Jong Un soon

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SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said Monday that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida offered to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “as soon as possible,” but stressed that prospects for their countries first summit in about 20 years would depend on Tokyo tolerating its weapons program and ignoring its past abductions of Japanese nationals.

In a parliamentary session, Kishida said that a meeting with Kim is “crucial” to resolve the abduction issue, a major sticking point in bilateral ties, and that his government has been using various channels to hold the summit.

Kim’s sister and senior official, Kim Yo Jong, said in a statement that Kishida recently used an unspecified channel to convey his position that he wants to meet Kim Jong Un in person “as soon as possible.”

She said there will be no breakthrough in North Korea-Japan relations as long as Kishida’s government is engrossed in the abduction issue and interferes in the North’s “exercise of our sovereign right,” apparently referring to the North’s weapons testing activities.

“The history of the DPRK-Japan relations gives a lesson that it is impossible to improve the bilateral relations full of distrust and misunderstanding, only with an idea to set out on a summit meeting,” Kim Yo Jong said, using the abbreviation of the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“If Japan truly wants to improve the bilateral relations and contribute to ensuring regional peace and stability as a close neighbor of the DPRK, it is necessary for it to make a political decision for strategic option conformed to its overall interests,” she said.

In February, Kim Yo Jong issued a similar statement on bilateral ties, saying North Korea was open to improving relationships with Japan and even inviting Kishida to Pyongyang. But she said those would be possible only if Tokyo stops taking issue with North Korea’s legitimate right to self-defense and the abduction issue.

Some experts say North Korea is seeking to improve ties with Japan as a way to weaken a trilateral Tokyo-Seoul-Washington security partnership, while Kishida also wants to use possible progress in the abduction issue to increase his declining approval rating at home.

North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile arsenals pose a major security threat to Japan as well as South Korea and the United States. The three countries have expanded their trilateral training exercises in response to the North’s provocative run of weapons tests since 2022. Japan and South Korea are two of America’s key allies in the region, together hosting about 80,000 U.S. troops on their territories.

North Korea and Japan don’t have diplomatic ties, and their relations have been overshadowed by North Korea’s nuclear program, the abduction issue and Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. Japan’s colonial wrongdoing is a source of on-again, off-again history wrangling between Tokyo and Seoul, as well.

After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in an unprecedented 2002 summit between Kim Jong Il, the late father of Kim Jong Un, and then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that its agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese, mainly to train spies in Japanese language and culture. It allowed five of them to return to Japan that year, but said the others had died. Japan thinks at least some of them may still be alive, and believes hundreds more may also have been abducted.

In 2004, Koizumi made a second visit to North Korea and met Kim Jong Il again. That was the last summit between the leaders of the two countries.

North Korea and Japan had been scheduled to play a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday in Pyongyang, but FIFA, soccer’s governing body, said Saturday it canceled the match. North Korea recently said it couldn’t host Japan and requested a neutral venue “due to unavoidable circumstances,” according to the Asian Football Confederation.

There are concerns North Korea could further dial up pressure on its rivals and intensify its weapons testing activities in what is an election year in both the United States and South Korea. Kim Jong Un has supervised a series of missile tests and other military drills this year.

Earlier Monday, North Korea’s state media reported that Kim Jong Un supervised a tank exercise and encouraged his armored forces to sharpen war preparations in the face of growing tensions with South Korea.

While most analysts doubt Kim is genuinely preparing for war, South Korean officials have raised the possibility of smaller provocations in border regions, including the disputed western sea boundary between the Koreas that has been the site of bloody skirmishes in past years.

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Associated Press journalist Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s Asia-Pacific news at https://apnews.com/hub/asia-pacific

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