WASHINGTON — President Trump will come face to face during his trip to Asia with one of North Korea’s most controversial activities: its kidnapping of citizens from other nations, notably Japan, the first stop on his 12-day, five-country voyage.
In Tokyo, Trump will reportedly meet with the parents of one of the best-known abductees, Megumi Yokota. She was 13 and on her way home from school when North Korean commandos snatched her from her coastal hometown of Niigata in 1977.
North Korea, which admitted in 2002 to seizing her, claimed that she had hanged herself in 1994. It sent Japan cremated remains that it said were hers, but Tokyo rejected the claim after carrying out DNA analysis, and her parents have always disputed the North’s account.
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Trump left Friday for a demanding trip that will test his ability to ratchet up pressure on North Korea and to redefine America’s relationship with China while reassuring U.S. allies in that rising power’s shadow. He’ll also mark one year since his history-shaping election victory and may potentially face a Twitter blackout in Beijing, which blocks his favorite social media platform. His other stops include Seoul, South Korea; Danang, Vietnam, for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit; Hanoi, Vietnam, for a state visit; and Manila, Philippines, for a summit with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Trump has referenced Yokota’s case before — in his Sept. 19 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, which included a litany of accusations against the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang. “We know it kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies,” he said in that address.
The abductee issue holds enormous emotional sway in Japan, which says 17 of its citizens were stolen away, most likely to train North Korean spies in Japanese and how to blend in. A February 2014 U.N. report contended that North Korea snatched “hundreds” of people from various countries over decades.
But the issue also possesses special significance now because, White House aides say, Trump plans to consider it as he weighs whether to put North Korea back on a U.S. government list of state sponsors of terrorism — a step that would result in tighter economic and diplomatic sanctions on the regime.
“This is something that’s under consideration,” national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster told reporters on Thursday. “And you’ll hear more about that soon, I think.”
In 2002, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il — father to its current leader, Kim Jong Un — blamed overzealous soldiers for the abduction.
“The special forces were carried away by a reckless quest for glory. It was regretful, and I want to frankly apologize. I have taken steps to ensure that it will never happen again,” said Kim. He also announced an agreement to return five of the prisoners to Japan.
Washington added North Korea to its list of terrorism sponsors in 1988, in the aftermath of the bombing of a South Korean jetliner in 1987. President George W. Bush removed the country from that blacklist in 2008 as part of negotiations on a nuclear disarmament deal.
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