While this is a much-needed political score for Abe, experts warn that abductees' families shouldn't put their hope in Trump.
- President Donald Trump agreed to raise one of Japan's most important political issues with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
- While meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump said he would try to resolve the issue of more than a dozen Japanese citizens that were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s.
- This is a huge win for Abe, whose support back home has plummeted as Japan fadded into the background on fast-moving talks with North Korea.
- But one expert told Business Insider it would be "tragic" if abductees' families put faith in Trump.
In the 1970s, more than a dozen people went missing from coastal areas of Japan, abducted by North Korea in a failed attempt to turn Japanese citizens into spies.
Pyongyang didn't admit to the kidnappings until 2002 when Kim Jong Il, in an attempt to receive aid, returned five abductees to Japan. At the time, North Korea said it only abducted 13 people and the remainder had died — a claim widely disbelieved in Japan where the abductions, believed to be of 17 people, have remained a hot political issue, particularly as family members of the taken youths grow older.
But at a news conference in Florida on Wednesday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Donald Trump confirmed the US would bring the cause up with Kim Jong Un directly.
"I will tell you that we were having dinner last night, and [Abe] started talking about abduction and how horrible it was. And his level of enthusiasm was unbelievable. And I said to him right then and there last night at the table, I said we will work very hard on that issue, and we will try and bring those folks back home," said Trump.
A day earlier, Abe expressed his gratefulness that Trump himself would take up the issue at the upcoming US-North Korea summit, and Trump replied, "You have my commitment."
It's a huge win for Abe.
The Japanese prime minister's popularity, and grip on power had plummeted back home, due both to a political scandal involving his wife and Abe's constant exclusion from the fast-moving talks concerning the country's biggest security threat, North Korea.
In the past, Abe was the world leader closest to Trump, and the two bonded over games of golf as well as a hardline approach to North Korea. In the first 11 months of Trump's presidency the two spoke on the phone 13 times — more than Abe did during Obama's entire second term.
But Abe received no warning about Trump's decision to accept a meeting with Kim Jong Un and has been scrambling ever since. Japan was even forced to ask China about Kim's meeting with Xi Jinping after finding out about the visit in the media, long after Beijing had briefed Washington and Seoul.
In meeting Trump ahead of the upcoming US-North Korea summit, and gaining assurances on the abductions issue — which Abe had made a top policy priority for his administration — the prime minister is likely feeling more confident about his relationship with Trump and the Japanese people than he has in months.
"Whether Japan will be left behind, that is not at all the case. In the last two days, together with President Trump, we have spoken about North Korea," Abe said. "We have gone into really in-depth discussion. About our policy and direction, we have reached agreement."
This isn't the first time Trump has raised the abductions issue
Speaking at the UN last year, the president mentioned the story of Megumi, a 13-year-old who was kidnapped while playing on the beach and was forced to become "a language tutor for North Korea's spies."
He also met the families of the abductees, who were mostly chosen by North Korean commandos at random, while on a tour of Asia in November.
"I think it would be a tremendous signal if Kim Jong Un would send them back," Trump said the time. "That would be the start of something I think would be just something very special, if they would do that."
And the latest news has again raised the hopes of family members whose siblings, children, and parents were taken more than 40 years ago.
Hope in Trump may be misguided
But hoping Trump raises the issue with Kim, and can even deliver a positive outcome, may be misguided.
In meeting the families of those abducted by North Korea, Trump was following a pattern set by the two presidents before him and most US ambassadors.
Robert S. Boynton, a journalism teacher at NYU and the author of "The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project," told Business Insider at the time of the meeting last year that little would likely be achieved.
"The families have become a kind of sacred shrine officials must visit in order to demonstrate that they and their loved ones have not been forgotten. The Japanese government uses these visits to show that the US cares, and hasn't abandoned Japan," Boynton said. "It is all theater because most US officials know virtually nothing about the abductions."
"It is tragic if the abductees' families put real faith in Trump. He couldn't remember the name of a slain US soldier, and I'm sure he's already forgotten about Megumi Yokota," he added.