Combined file photo of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Kyodo)

Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed understanding of Japan's concern over the issue of North Korea's past abductions during his first talks with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga over the phone last month, diplomatic sources said Saturday.

As Sino-U.S. tensions were escalating, Xi apparently tried to maintain stable relations with Japan by voicing an interest in the abduction issue, which Suga has pledged to resolve as his highest priority, the sources familiar with bilateral ties said.

It is believed that Xi told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their meeting in June 2019 about then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's stance on relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

As premier, Abe called tackling the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s his "life's work." But he stepped down in September citing his ill health, after nearly eight years in the post.

After five abductees went back to Japan in 2002, Tokyo has been seeking the return of 12 others whom it has officially recognized as having been abducted by North Korean agents. It also suspects Pyongyang's involvement in other Japanese citizens' disappearances.

But North Korea has claimed that the abduction issue has been "already resolved," saying eight of them have died and the other four never entered the country.

During the telephone conversation with Xi, conducted on Sept. 25, Suga took up issues such as the matter of North Korea's past abductions and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, according to the sources.

Xi was quoted by the sources as telling Suga that China "hopes Japan and North Korea will resolve the abduction issue through dialogue."

The sources said Xi also told Suga that China "puts an emphasis on peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," adding he supports talks between the United States and North Korea.

After their conversation, a Japanese government official said the two leaders affirmed their cooperation on North Korea, including Japan's efforts to retrieve its abducted citizens, but Xi's specific remarks were not disclosed.

Suga, meanwhile, urged Xi to relax China's ban on Japanese food imports, which has been imposed in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear crisis triggered by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the sources said.

Xi, however, responded by repeating China's stand that it will consider the issue "on scientific grounds," the sources added.

As for Hong Kong affairs, Suga, who is seen to have wanted to avoid a backlash from China during his first talks with Xi, said only that Japan "would like to discuss matters that the international community is interested in," according to the sources.

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