TOKYO - As Japan presses North Korea for information on the fate of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago, speculation is simmering that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could use a possible breakthrough on the emotive issue to call a snap election.
History shows that securing the release of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korea decades ago can deliver a hefty, if shortlived, boost to a premier's popularity.
North Korea agreed in May to reopen an investigation into the fate of missing Japanese, including those snatched by its agents to train spies in the 1970s and 1980s, in return for Japan easing some economic sanctions on the reclusive state.
An initial report is due in late summer or early autumn, though cynics believe North Korea already knows the whereabouts of the missing Japanese. "Toward a snap election in September" blared a speculative headline this week in the weekly tabloid Shukan Gendai. "Certain victory would follow a surprise North Korea visit,"wrote the tabloid, suggesting that Abe is hoping his Liberal Democratic Party could secure the two-thirds majority needed to achieve his dream of revising the pacifist constitution.
Analysts acknowledge that the scenario - under which Abe travels to Pyongyang in August, returns with Japanese survivors and calls a snap poll - has a certain plausibility given the boost Abe's predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, got from visits to Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004.
But they add that it also has big holes. "If you think about the Koizumi pattern, it is possible to come up with such a scenario, but I don't think it is likely,"said Katsuhiko Nakamura, executive director of the Asian Forum Japan think tank. "I don't think Prime Minister Abe intends to use that sort of trick to extend his political life." Abe has long made resolving the abductees issue a plank of his agenda. The Nikkei business daily said Pyongyang provided a list of some 30 Japanese still living in the North, but the government staunchly denies the existence of any such list.
North Korea admitted to the kidnappings in 2002 when Koizumi made an unprededented visit, resulting in the return of five abductees. He returned to Pyongyang in 2004, bringing back five children of the abductees and later arranging the release of two children and the American defector spouse of another.