TOKYO -- President Trump says North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un could open the door to "something very special" if the regime were to release more than a dozen abducted Japanese citizens who remain in its custody.
"Now the spotlight is on" the abductee issue, Trump said at a press conference in Tokyo. "And perhaps we could have good luck, and perhaps the regime would send them back. That would be a tremendous signal if Kim Jong Un would send them back."
Officials say North Korea has abducted at least 17 Japanese citizens since the 1970s and 80s, including a 13-year-old girl kidnapped in 1977 on her way home from school, Japanese embassy spokesman Takehiro Shimada said.
While the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic ties with North Korea, and Trump has publicly ruled out direct talks over its nuclear program, the administration has been quietly engaging with the regime through diplomatic back-channels.
Trump's comments on the abductee issue signaled a possible step Kim Jong Un could take toward negotiations.
"If [Kim Jong Un] could send them back, that would be the start of something I think would be something very special if they would do that," Trump said.
The president and first lady Melania Trump spent part of their first full day in Japan meeting with relatives of those abducted, a situation Mr. Trump called a "tremendous disgrace."
Speaking after the meeting surrounded by the families, Trump pledged that he would commit to helping broker their loved ones' return.
"We've just heard the very sad stories about family members -- daughters, wives, brothers, uncles, fathers -- it’s a very, very sad number of stories that we’ve heard," the president said after the meeting.
"We will work with Prime Minister Abe in getting them back. They were used to learn the language, they were used for -- many different reasons," he said of the victims.
Trump has been hailed in Japan for highlighting the plight of abductees by North Korea in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September.
“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,” Trump said at the time.
Administration officials have said the cases are a factor in the president’s forthcoming decision on whether or not to re-list the regime on the official list of state sponsors of terrorism.
“The president's cabinet is looking at this as part of the overall strategy on North Korea,” national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters last week.
Japan has asked for help from the United States in pressing for the return of the abductees, Shimada said, and family members of the victims have traveled to Washington to share their stories.
After a recent meeting at the White House, aides later told the president of the families’ experiences. He “was very interested and moved,” one senior administration official said.
The meeting in Tokyo was requested by President Trump, administration officials said.
"I renew my determination to do my utmost to realize a day when those family members can hold their daughters and family members in their arms again," Abe said. "And I will work closely with President Trump to resolve this abductions issue."