TOKYO (CNN) - US President Donald Trump hinted at the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea, were the country to release a number of Japanese citizens abducted by the regime more than two decades ago.
Trump, who is in Tokyo on a diplomatic tour of Asia, made the comments after attending a meeting with the families of those kidnapped by North Korean agents Monday.
Some of the families are still waiting on any information about their loved ones, years after they first disappeared. "I think it would be a tremendous signal if Kim Jong Un would send them back," Trump said during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following the meeting. "That would be the start of something I think would be just something very special if they would do that."
The issue of North Korean abductions remains highly charged within Japan, where over a dozen people remain missing after being abducted by alleged North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang admitted to some of the abductions in the early 2000s, but Tokyo has accused North Korea of not being completely transparent.
At the press conference, Trump compared the case of one abductee to Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was detained by North Korea and released in dire condition. He died just days after returning to the United States.
"No parent should ever have to endure 40 years of heartbreak. We also had a young wonderful man in our country," Trump said at the news conference. "We all know the story about him. It's a horrible story. It's a sad story and we can't let that happen."
Some family members of abductees have pinned hopes of seeing their loved ones on President Trump's efforts.
Standing in a gilded room in Tokyo's Akasaka Palace, Trump and Abe were joined by about a dozen family members of abductees, some of whom were holding photos of their loved ones. US First Lady Melania Trump and her Japanese counterpart, Akie Abe, were also present.
One of those present was Sakie Yokota, the mother of Megumi Yokota, whose case Trump cited during his September speech at the United Nations.
Yokota was abducted in 1977, when she was 13 years old. Her case came to symbolize the abduction issue on the whole, in large part due to the family's active involvement.
Trump also met Hitomi Soga, a former abductee who during her time in North Korea married American defector and former US serviceman Charles Robert Jenkins. The couple and their two daughters left North Korea in 2004.
"(Abduction) is an issue that still resonates in Japan," said Ralph Cossa, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum in Honolulu.
"It's very much in the Japanese psyche, so it's not surprising that Abe would bring this up and want to make sure Trump is aware of this. And of course it's something that would resonate with Trump. Any example that shows how evil North Korea is is going to fall on receptive ears," Cossa told CNN before the trip.
Possible more than 100 missing
To date, the Japanese government has identified 17 individuals who were abducted by North Korean agents, though the actual number could be higher than 100. During an attempt at rapprochement in the early 2000s between the two countries, Kim Jong Il acknowledged 13 of the kidnappings and apologized. Five abductees were allowed to return to Japan in 2002.
An independent commission has identified dozens more, including 15 since 2000.
"As long as 40 years there are those that have been suffering because of the loss of loved ones as well as their family members," Abe said Monday. "I renew my determination to my utmost to realize the day when those family members can hold daughters and sons with their own arms."
Politicians in Tokyo, including Abe, say all of the abductees must be accounted for before Japan and North Korea can resume normal relations.
Abe has long taken a tough stance when it comes to dealing with North Korea, and the issue of abductees in particular.
"It would've been surprising if the abductees had not been mentioned, since it's almost a requirement -- it's the first tick mark on everyone's five-by-eight card, don't forget the abductees," Cossa said. "This is a popular issue. People would be asking questions if he didn't bring that up."