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Japan PM Abe open to summit with N. Korea's Kim

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United Nations (United States) (AFP)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a longtime hardliner on North Korea, said Tuesday he was willing to meet Kim Jong Un after the once reclusive leader's historic summit with US President Donald Trump.

Abe, who one year ago warned at the United Nations that the window for diplomacy with North Korea was closing, took a more open but still cautious tone in his latest address to the world body.

But he said that any summit would be devoted to resolving a decades-old row over North Korea's abductions of Japanese civilians -- a deeply emotive issue for much of the Japanese public on which Abe built his political career.

"In order to resolve the abduction issue, I am also ready to break the shell of mutual distrust with North Korea, get off to a new start and meet face to face with Chairman Kim Jong Un," Abe said in his UN address.

"But if we are to have one, then I am determined that it must contribute to the resolution of the abduction issue."

He stressed that no summit was yet in the works -- and appealed to Kim to show his own readiness.

"North Korea is now at a crossroads at which it will either seize or fail to seize the historic opportunity it was afforded," Abe said.

- Fast-changing diplomacy on North -

North Korea kidnapped scores of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train the regime's spies in Japanese language and culture.

Japan's then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004 to seek a new relationship with the current leader's father Kim Jong Il and was told by North Korea that remaining abduction victims were dead -- a stance adamantly rejected by Japanese family members and campaigners.

Speculation has been rising that Abe could meet with Kim, who reportedly told Trump during their summit in June in Singapore that he was willing to talk to arch-enemy Japan.

With South Korea's dovish President Moon Jae-in also courting Kim, fears have risen in Japan that it could be shut out of any ultimate resolution on North Korea if it refuses dialogue.

Trump in his own UN address earlier Tuesday pointed to his "bold and new push for peace" and saluted Kim's courage.

It was a far cry from a year ago, when Trump stunned assembled leaders by threatening to "totally destroy" North Korea and belittling "rocket man" Kim.

Despite Trump's upbeat assessment of his own diplomacy, many analysts are skeptical on how much North Korea has changed, saying the regime has already conducted the tests it needed to build its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea would be sure to press its own demand in any summit with Japan -- an apology for Tokyo's harsh 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

Beyond any moral dimension to an apology, North Korea would be hoping to secure badly needed cash. Japan paid South Korea some $800 million in loans, grants and credits when it established relations in 1965.

- Hoping to avoid trade friction -

Abe will meet Wednesday with Trump, with whom he quickly formed a bond after the tycoon's shock election victory. But Japan fears growing friction with Trump over trade.

While Trump has directed his fury on China, he has frequently complained about a deficit with Japan. US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi have been meeting to address US complaints about trade barriers.

Abe devoted much of his address to trade, saying that Japan supported 856,000 jobs in the United States -- more than any country except Britain.

Noting Japan's limited natural resources, Abe said: "The very first country to prove through its own experience the principle that exists between trade and growth -- a principle that has now become common sense -- was Japan."

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