Japan's Abe signals shift on North Korea, says will meet Kim without conditions: media

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe takes part in a meeting with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (not pictured) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 28, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he is ready to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without conditions to end long-running mistrust between their countries, the Sankei newspaper reported on Friday.

Abe's remarks come days after he met U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington and thanked Trump for raising with Kim, at a February summit, the topic of Japanese people abducted by North Korea.

Resolving the issue of Japanese people abducted by North Korean agents decades ago to train the North's spies has for years been a Japanese condition for improving diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea.

Japan, like the United States, is also seeking an end to North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

Abe signaled a shift in Japan's position in an interview with the newspaper on Wednesday, saying the only way to "break the current mutual distrust" was for him to hold unconditional talks with Kim.

"That's why I would like to meet him without setting preconditions and hold frank discussions. I hope he's a leader who can determine flexibly and strategically what is best for his country," Abe was quoted as saying.

In 2002, North Korea said that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.

Japan believes 17 of its citizens were abducted, five of whom were repatriated. Eight were said by North Korea to have died, while four were said to have never entered the country.

Abe's shift on North Korea comes after more than a year of efforts by it to improves its foreign relations.

Kim has met Trump twice since June last year and has held three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Kim also met Russian President Vladimir Putin last month.

That leaves Japan as the only regional power involved in the North Korea nuclear crisis yet to have a summit with the North's leader.

The last meeting between the leaders of Japan and North Korea was in 2004, when the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, met Kim's late father, Kim Jong-il.

They pledged to work together to resolve the abductee issue.

(Reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo and Jack Kim in Seoul; Editing by Robert Birsel)