US envoy to the UN vows support for families of Japanese who were abducted and taken to North Korea

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says America will stand with Japan until all the Japanese abducted by North Korea decades ago return home to end their painful separation

TOKYO (AP) — The United States ambassador to the United Nations said Thursday that America will stand with Japan until all the Japanese abducted by North Korea decades ago return home to end their painful separation.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield made the comments on Thursday as she began her visit to Tokyo by meeting with the families of those kidnapped.

Japan says North Korea abducted at least 17 Japanese citizens, possibly many more, to train them as agents during the 1970s and 1980s. After admitting in 2002 it had abducted 13 Japanese, North Korea apologized and allowed five to return home for a visit. They have since stayed in Japan. Pyongyang said eight others had died and denied that the other four entered its territory and never provided a reinvestigation it has promised.

The twelve who are still missing include teenage students and others living along Japan’s coasts. Many were bundled into small boats and taken across the sea to North Korea.

“The United Stats stands with all the families, with all of Japan and with the international community in pressing for a resolution that will allow all families separated by the regime’s policies to be reunited,” Thomas-Greenfield said at the outset of her meeting with five relatives of the abductees and a representative from their support group at the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I’m all too familiar with the pain and the loss and the suffering that you family members here are experiencing,” she said. “I know how painful it is for you, and then how long you have had to endure this pain.”

Thomas-Greenfield said she has worked on North Korea-related issues throughout her career.

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is committed to raising the abduction issue "at every opportunity and calling for the return of abducted Japanese citizens to their family," the ambassador said, adding that America sticks to that policy regardless of the leadership.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has repeatedly stated his determination to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to achieve the return of the abductees.

Experts say Kim wants improved ties with Japan to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies, while Kishida, stung by a major corruption scandal in his governing party, wants to use possible progress in the abduction issue to turn around his dwindling support ratings at home. They say a summit, however, would be difficult because Japan cannot accept the preconditions set by Pyongyang in order to resolve the abduction issues.

Sakie Yokota, 88, whose then-13-year-old daughter, Megumi, was abducted in 1977 from Japan’s northern coast on her way home from school, told Thomas-Greenfield that she, her husband and Megumi’s brothers searched for her for 20 years until they found out she was abducted. They are still waiting to reunite with her, she said.

“All I want is to see her, while I’m still well,” Yokota said, beseeching the ambassador for continued support toward resolving the problem.

Thomas-Greenfield arrived in Tokyo after her earlier visit to Seoul, where she and South Korean officials discussed a new mechanism for monitoring North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Russia and China have thwarted U.S.-led efforts to step up U.N. sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile testing since 2022, underscoring a deepening divide between permanent Security Council members over Russia's war on Ukraine.

The United States, South Korea and Japan have been deepening security ties amid growing tensions in the region from North Korea and China. The three countries have expanded their combined military exercises and their deterrence strategies built around U.S. strategic assets.

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Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.