By: Our Correspondent

The new conservative government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is making a new push to try and resolve the decades-long dispute with North Korea over the fate of a dozen Japanese it claims were abducted by North Korean operatives in the 1970s and 1980s and may be still alive.

The issue was not pressed very hard by the previous Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government until the last months of its four-year government, but it has been raised anew by the more conservative Abe administration.

Japan has a cabinet-level ministry devoted entirely to the abduction issue. The current state minister, Keiji Furuya, recently said that Tokyo would not lift bilateral sanctions against North Korea or resume aid until the issue was resolved, even if the North should agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program.

Furuya was in the U.S. a few weeks ago trying to raise awareness of the matter among Americans through symposiums held in Washington and New York. He took with him several relatives of those kidnapped by the North to tell their personal stories.

It may be a good time to be raising the issue, Tokyo thinks, as public attention in the U.S. and elsewhere has been drawn to North Korea as a result of its earlier nuclear bomb test and extreme bellicose threats to launch missiles at everyone. Moreover, the North recently condemned an American citizen of Korean extraction to fifteen years in prison.

The issue involves the fate of more than a dozen Japanese citizens who were snatched by North Korean agents and spirited away to the North, ostensibly to train more agents in Japanese language and manners for future espionage. Most of these disappearances took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it wasn’t until North Korean defectors began appearing in the late 1990s that Tokyo became aware of their true fate.

In 2002 former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il. At that meeting Kim admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese and apologized for it. Leader Kim said that 12 people were kidnapped. Of these, five were returned to Japan; the other eight died. Case closed.

Tokyo disputes this. It claims 17 people were kidnapped (including five that Pyongyang says never entered the country), five were returned, and 12 remain unaccounted for. It is skeptical of Pyongyang’s assertions that they died in mysterious "traffic accidents" or committed suicide.

The families of the abductees have become celebrities. The parents of Megumi Yokota, who was snatched in 1977 when she was only 13, appear on television, at press conferences and are interviewed for their opinions on politics, nuclear weapons and North Korea (the latter not complimentary). Many conservative politicians, including Shinzo Abe himself, wear the little blue ribbon in their lapel to show solidarity, much as Americans used to wear bracelets with POW names.

It was Abe who created the cabinet post for the abduction issue during his first term as prime minister from 2006 to 2007. The post languished after him. His successor Yasuo Fukuda showed little interest in the matter, as did the first two DPJ premiers. During their government, seven individuals held the abductee portfolio or were given it as part of other duties.

The last DPJ premier showed more interest in the issue. Yoshihiko Noda met with the families and indicated a willingness to fly to Pyongyang if necessary to move things along. He also wore the little blue lapel ribbon. However, the momentum for the DPJ was lost in its big electoral debacle.

Minister Furuya is making preparations to meet with North Korean counterparts in Mongolia’s capital, which is a neutral place as Mongolia is not a party to the six-party talks aimed at ending the impasse. Pyongyang is reluctant to reopen the issue as it assumed that the elder Kim’s confession and apology more than a decade ago was sufficient.

In another recent development, it was reported that a senior advisor to the prime minister, Isao Ijima, had flown to Pyongyang on a still undisclosed mission. He was a top aide to Junichiro Koizumi when he made his famous 2002 visit to Pyongyang and summit meeting with the late Kim Jong-il.

It is no exaggeration to say that resolution of the kidnappings has become the most important foreign policy issue for Japan and the main obstacle to normalization of relations with North Korea. Over the years Tokyo has cut off all contacts and even minimal trade in such things as clams plus cracking down on remittances from Koreans living in Japan.

The abductions are a touchy matter for Washington, which would really like to see it disappear as it complicates the united front on what it considers the much larger question of disarming the North of its nuclear weapons armory. Former President George W. Bush found this out the hard way when he first met with the family of Megumi in the White House and then removed North Korea from the list of nations sponsoring terrorism, which many Japanese considered a betrayal.

It complicates negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. In the past Tokyo has refused to pay its share of heavy oil shipments, claiming that Pyongyang is dragging its feet on resolving the kidnappings. That in turn gave the North an excuse to claim that parties to the six-party talks were reneging on their commitments.

But for the Japanese it is more than just an abstract geopolitical issue. It tugs at the heart strings. Who cannot feel the indignity of 13-year school girl old kidnapped on a public street while returning home from school badminton practice or the years in which her parents were totally ignorant of her true fate. "It was like she disappeared in a puff of smoke," her mother once said.

And there is a new urgency as the abductees that are still living are obviously not getting any younger. The oldest, Yutaka Kume, taken in 1977 when he was 51, would now be approaching 90. The youngest, Megumi would be 50 if she were still living (Pyongyang says she committed suicide when she was about 30). Time is running out.