Several reports said Thursday the North Korean government has moved the three Americans – Kim Dong-cheol, Kim Sang-deok, and Kim Hak-seong – out of detention and into more comfortable accommodations near Pyongyang to get them ready to be handed over to Trump, as a confidence-building measure if and when the summit happens. The Trump administration has kept the Americans at the center of preliminary talks with the Kim regime.
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe secured a promise from Trump that he will also push for Japan’s 12 remaining abductees in North Korea to be released. The family members of those abductees are touring the United States to hold the Trump administration to that pledge.
“We think this is really the final opportunity for us,” said Takuya Yokota, whose sister Megumi Yokota was snatched off a street in Niigata in 1977, when she was 13. She has been imprisoned and incommunicado ever since. “But at the same [time], this is also the last opportunity for North Korea as well.”
On Thursday, the Japanese abductee family members will visit the United Nations and sit on a panel with the parents of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who died shortly after being released from 18 months in a North Korean prison.
Their message is that the leverage the United States and its allies have over North Korea is stronger now than it has ever been or is likely to be. Trump has the opportunity to show that he is bargaining not just for the United States, but also on behalf of allies and universal values including freedom and human rights.
Yokota met with Trump and the first lady last November in Tokyo with members of other abductee families. He showed Trump family photos from before the abduction. Trump referenced that meeting standing beside Abe at Mar-a-Lago last month.
“During my visit to Japan last fall, I met with Japanese families who endured the terrible heartbreak of having their loved ones abducted by the North Korean regime,” Trump said. “So important to you, and we’re going to do everything possible to have them brought back and bring them back to Japan. I gave you that promise.”
The Japanese abductee issue is not only about abductees. Japan is America’s cornerstone ally in Asia and an ally directly in the sights of North Korea’s nuclear missiles. Although the Trump administration has been keeping Abe in the loop, Japan fears getting passed over as the United States, South Korea and North Korea join hands to chart a new diplomatic course. Securing Trump’s cooperation on the abductees was a rare but important win for Abe.
By keeping the issue on the agenda, Trump would be telling Kim that in order to normalize relations with the United States, he must also work with its allies. Some will say it complicates an already profoundly complex negotiation. But now is the time to make sure Kim knows he can’t split the U.S.-Japan alliance if he wants real normalization.
“Ultimately this is the matter that has to be resolved between Japan and North Korea,” said Yokota. “But it’s important under the U.S.-Japan alliance a powerful ally like the United States talks strongly and loudly that will be a very powerful support for us.”
The Japan abductee issue is also not just about Japan. North Korea has abducted hundreds of innocent people from all over Asia. U.S. allies around the region will get a signal from the summit whether Trump cares about their citizens or just his own.
“The abduction issue is not limited to Japan,” said Koichiro Iizuka, whose mother, Yaeko, was abducted by North Korean agents in 1978, when he was 1. Now 41, he knows about her only through photos and stories told by relatives.
“There are victims from South Korea, China, Lebanon, Thailand, Romania and others. They were all snatched from their countries by North Korean operatives,” he said. “The United States is the leader of this global community and if that leader does raise this issue squarely and frankly with North Korea, that would mean the United States plays an extremely important role for human rights for the entire world.”
Trump administration officials say repeatedly the Trump-Kim summit is narrowly focused on the issue of North Korea’s threat to the United States. But they also say it will be the beginning of a longer process, one that will have to include allies. Abe has already said he wants to meet Kim after Trump. The least Trump can do is strengthen Abe’s hand for that negotiation.
Kim must realize that if he wants North Korea to be treated like a normal country, with all the economic and security benefits such recognition brings, he must adhere to international norms of good behavior, come clean about its history of kidnapping and release all the foreign prisoners his father and grandfather kidnapped.