Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed hope Tuesday that his upcoming visit to the United States will help strengthen bilateral coordination in resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea decades ago.
Suga, who is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's right-hand man, said arrangements are being made for him to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan during his four-day trip to Washington and New York from Thursday.
"The abduction issue is the highest priority for our Cabinet and I hope to make our bilateral coordination closer through my visit," Suga, the top government spokesman who also serves as minister in charge of the abduction issue, said at a press conference.
"It's important for Japan to tackle the issue proactively but it's also essential to secure cooperation from the United States and the international community" so all abductees return to Japan, he said.
It is rare for a chief Cabinet secretary, who is responsible for crisis management, to leave Japan. The 70-year-old's last overseas trip was to Guam in 2015.
Suga has been raising his profile since assuming the post of top government spokesman in 2012, when Abe took office for the second time. He recently emerged as a potential candidate for prime minister, being dubbed "Uncle Reiwa" on social media following his revelation of the Chinese characters for Japan's new imperial era that started May 1.
Political pundits said Suga's trip may be part of his efforts to forge connections with key figures in the United States, Japan's longtime security ally.
In New York, Suga plans to attend a symposium on abductees at the U.N. headquarters. Japan officially lists 17 citizens as abduction victims and suspects North Korea's involvement in many more disappearances.
The trip comes after Abe said he is ready to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without preconditions, a shift from his previous stance that any summit should yield progress on the abduction issue.
Amid North Korea's diplomatic outreach since last year, Abe remains the only leader among the members of the stalled six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear program to hold a meeting with Kim. The negotiations involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.