The secret meeting in Mongolia between the parents and the daughter of a Japanese woman considered a symbol of the abduction issue could prove a turning point in Japan and North Korea relations.
Shigeru and Sakie Yokota have been at the forefront of the movement by families seeking repatriation of loved ones who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Their daughter, Megumi, was abducted from Niigata city in November 1977 when she was only 13.
The Foreign Ministry announced March 16 that the Yokotas met with their granddaughter, Kim Eun Gyong, in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, between March 10 and 14. It was the first time that the Yokotas have met the 26-year-old daughter of Megumi.
Officials of the foreign ministries of the two nations sat in on the meeting, the contents of which have not been divulged.
At a March 17 news conference in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, where the Yokotas reside, Sakie said: "Eun Gyong resembled Megumi when she was young. It was a miraculous time that made me feel like I was dreaming."
Eun Gyong's 10-month-old daughter, the couple's great-granddaughter, also was present at the meeting in Ulan Bator, the Yokotas confirmed.
The Yokotas said the abduction issue was not discussed during the meeting.
Because of their advanced age--Shigeru is 81, while Sakie is 78--the Yokotas had long sought a meeting with their granddaughter. However, the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea had opposed such a meeting in North Korea because of fears Pyongyang would utilize the occasion to bolster its claim that Megumi died in April 1994. The Japanese government has not accepted that statement on the grounds that definitive evidence has not been provided.
The meeting in Mongolia was the result of compromises made by both Japan and North Korea.
The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has placed priority on resolving the abduction issue. For its part, North Korea is seeking an easing of economic sanctions to help prop up its impoverished economy.
According to several government sources, Abe played a leading role in bringing about the latest meeting.
Through diplomatic channels, the proposal was made by Tokyo to hold a meeting between the Yokotas and their granddaughter in a third-party nation.
Pyongyang had long called on the Yokotas to visit North Korea to meet Kim Eun Gyong. However, Japan was opposed to such a venue because officials believed North Korea would use the occasion to convince the Yokotas that their daughter was dead and bring an end to the abduction issue.
The selection of Mongolia as the site of the meeting was a deliberate one. Mongolia has diplomatic relations with North Korea, and the ties are said to be good.
The Abe administration has also taken steps to deepen its ties with Mongolia.
In March 2013, Abe met with Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj in Ulan Bator and asked for his cooperation in resolving the abduction issue. When Elbegdorj visited Japan in September, Abe invited him to Abe's private residence for a meeting that lasted more than an hour.
The meeting in Mongolia was apparently agreed to after at least three secret meetings between Japanese and North Korean officials between December and February.
Japanese officials believe North Korea agreed to holding the meeting in Mongolia because it hoped for a lifting of economic sanctions as well as economic assistance.
With Kim Jong Un now in his third year as North Korean leader, Pyongyang is desperate to show its people that progress is being made to improve their lives.
In recent months, North Korea has been taking a more cooperative stance toward Japan and South Korea.
On March 3, a meeting was held in Shenyang, China, between officials of the Red Cross societies of Japan and North Korea. Pyongyang not only proposed that meeting, the first in about 18 months, but also asked that Foreign Ministry officials of the two nations be allowed to sit in. North Korea also agreed to an informal meeting between those ministry officials outside of the Red Cross meeting.
A second meeting of officials of the two Red Cross societies is scheduled to be held March 19-20. There is also speculation that North Korea might agree to the resumption of talks between officials at the ministerial bureau director level.
The Abe administration’s emphasis on the abduction issue makes Japan, in a sense, an easier partner with which to seek a compromise.
The meeting between the Yokotas and their granddaughter could be seen as a step toward resolution of the abduction issue, and Japan might provide economic assistance to North Korea.
Such a stance could come into conflict with the United States, which has said that the issues of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development programs must be resolved first.
Although the association of families with members who have been abducted was not informed beforehand about the Yokotas' trip to Mongolia, members expressed their understanding because of the couples' advanced age and because the meeting was not held in North Korea.
THE ASAHI SHIMBUN