Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in September 2023.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in September 2023. (Vladimir Smirnov, Pool photo via AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered a rare opening for Japan, saying she saw a positive tone in comments from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who is seeking a summit.

Kim Yo Jong indicated a meeting of leaders would be possible if Japan “does not lay such a stumbling block as the already settled abduction issue,” she said in a press statement issued Thursday on state media.

“It is my opinion that if Japan makes a political decision to open up a new way of mending the relations through its courteous behavior and trustworthy action on the basis of courageously breaking with anachronistic hostility and unattainable desire and recognizing each other, the two countries can open up a new future together,” the statement carried on the Korean Central News Agency said.

The tone is a marked change from comments she issued nearly two years ago when she lumped Japan in with a bunch of “sinister” nations she accused of raising rabble at the United Nations to criticize Pyongyang for the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. She has also unleashed speeches with fiery and threatening language directed at South Korea’s leaders.

Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said Friday that Tokyo was taking note of the comments from Kim Yo Jong. He also said it was “totally unacceptable” to consider the abduction issue as resolved.

It would be nearly impossible for Kishida not to focus on the abductee issue, which has played a prominent role in the priorities of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party for years.

While North Korea appears to be warming up slightly to Japan, it has widened a chasm between itself and Seoul. Last week, Kim Jong Un said he has the legal right to annihilate South Korea, in his latest move to threaten his neighbor after starting the year by eliminating the concept of peaceful unification from his state’s national policy.

North Korea has been under new pressure as South Korea, Japan and the U.S. have raised their cooperation to new levels over the past two years and stepped up military training against threats posed by Pyongyang. The U.S. has also been bringing nuclear-capable military assets such as aircraft carrier groups and attack submarines off the Korean Peninsula in shows of force meant to deter Kim Jong Un from aggression.

“North Korea is nervous (about) the reinforced trilateral partnership between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo,” said Kak Soo Shin, a former career diplomat who once served as South Korea’s ambassador to Japan. “In a bid to drive a wedge in (these) strengthening ties, North Korea seems to make use of the prime minister’s desire to open up a door to Pyongyang,” adding this could help Kishida boost his low support rate.

Shin sees little likelihood of a summit taking place given the differences on abductees and the thorny issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Last month, leader Kim Jong Un also offered an olive branch when he sent a rare message to Kishida expressing sympathy and condolences for the victims of an earthquake in Japan.

Kishida has long said he is willing to meet Kim Jong Un without preconditions. Last week, he said his government has made “various, concrete” efforts for a summit with the aim to resolve the long-standing issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, Kyodo News reported.

Tokyo officially lists 17 of its citizens as having been abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s, five of whom returned home in 2002. North Korea considers the issue settled and has blasted Japan for repeatedly raising it. North Korea claims that eight of the abductees have died and the other four were never in its country.

Prior to the statement from Kim Yo Jong, a senior U.S. State Department official charged with managing issues with Pyongyang said Kishida has mentioned a summit before and Washington would support talks.

“We encourage any kind of dialogue,” Jung Pak said in an interview.

North Korea has a habit of seeking concessions for engagement with countries it sees as adversaries, such as Japan. It has shunned offers over the past several years from the U.S., Japan and South Korea for talks and appears to be receiving significant support from Russia in recent months in return for arms sent by Kim’s regime to help President Vladimir Putin in his war on Ukraine.

In 2002, Junichiro Koizumi became the first Japanese prime minister to visit North Korea. Soon after that, five Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978 were reunited with their families after arriving in Tokyo. Koizumi and then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il also agreed to work to establish formal diplomatic relations, but that never came to fruition.

“That Kim Yo Jong’s invitation to Kishida comes with strings attached should have us question the sincerity of the DPRK’s intentions,” said Soo Kim, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency who now works at U.S.-based management consulting firm LMI, referring to North Korea by its formal name.

“Not to mention, the chasm in North Korea-Japan relations is quite wide — would thawing their relations be so simple?” she said.

Iain Marlow and Takashi Hirokawa contributed to this report.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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