When President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a joint press conference at the White House last week, the two leaders spent several moments discussing an issue Japan cares about deeply but that has barely registered in American politics: the return of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea.
The matter is part of a tense and painful chapter in relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo that many people in Japan are still grappling with.
From 1977 to 1983, several Japanese citizens living in coastal regions disappeared under strange circumstances. For years, rumors flew across the country that some of these citizens had been abducted by North Korean agents as part of a broader espionage campaign out of Pyongyang.
In 2002, Kim Jong Il, as part of a broader set of negotiations between North Korea and Japan that would produce the Pyongyang Declaration, admitted that members of the North Korean regime had abducted 13 Japanese residents.
Experts and historians have pointed out that Kim did not explicitly say that the abductions were part of a specific North Korean government campaign, but, rather, were the efforts by a small number of rogue actors within the government. The abductions would have all occurred during the reign of his father, Kim Il Sung, who led North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994.
While Kim apologized for the abductions, he did not disclose why they had taken place.
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Experts on North Korean and Japanese politics, however, say the abductions were part of an effort by Pyongyang intelligence operatives to learn more about Japanese culture to better train its government spies to act and travel like Japanese people.
"The regime was using these Japanese nationals to train North Korean spies to act like Japanese people when they took part in overseas espionage activities," John Park, the director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told NBC News. "For better cover stories. How they acted, how they traveled, pop culture references, language."
Jim Schoff, a senior fellow within the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said many of the people abducted were also forced to teach Japanese language and culture to other North Korean intelligence agents and state-sponsored terror groups.
For example, a Korean spy convicted of bombing a South Korean passenger jet in 1987, killing all 115 on board, said she had been trained by Yaeko Taguchi, another Japanese woman who was kidnapped in 1978.
In September 2002, as part of talks with Japan on the issue, North Korea admitted that, of the 13 people it claimed its government abducted, four were alive, eight had died and one's entrance into North Korea could not be confirmed.
North Korea also turned over to the Japanese government the remains of the eight people it said had died. The Japanese government, however, has maintained that DNA testing showed that the remains did not in fact belong to the deceased abductees.
Megumi's family believes she is alive and has campaigned publicly for years for her return. Megumi reportedly married and had a daughter while living under the totalitarian regime. Her husband has reiterated Pyongyang's assertion that she died, but the family believes the statement was made under duress.
Megumi's story has emerged as a cause célèbre in Japan, and, Trump, during his 12-day visit to Asia last November, met with her family, as well as the families of other abductees. Barack Obama met with the family in Japan during his presidency, while George W. Bush hosted her family in the Oval Office in 2006.
On one hand, experts say, Japan wants closure on this chapter in its recent history. Megumi's parents maintain their daughter is still alive and want her returned. And the families of other abductees, who North Korea claims are deceased, want proof of what happened to their loved ones.
On the other hand, with the prospect of a denuclearized North Korea on the table, the issue has reemerged as a key point in negotiations for Japan, which like several other nations, has begun exploring the terms of how to normalize relations with Pyongyang after a decadeslong freeze.
When Japan officially normalized relations with South Korea in 1965, Japan paid Seoul, as part of the deal, millions of dollars in aid and reparations (which stemmed from Japan's imperial history on the Korean Peninsula).
According to Schoff and Park, North Korea wants a similar deal as part of any normalization talks that would hypothetically follow denuclearization.
But Japan wants something, too.
"As part of a broader deal, Japan wants total satisfaction on the abduction issue, which of course, is a terribly important domestic political imperative," said Schoff, of the Carnegie Institute.
Abe, however — unlike Trump and the leaders of China and South Korea — has not yet had a bilateral meeting with Kim. As a result, Abe wants his goal articulated to Kim by Trump.
"He basically told Trump, 'When you see this guy, you tell him we haven't forgotten about this,' and, 'We're not going to support the normalization process and economic engagement process until we see this issue resolved to our satisfaction,'" Schoff said.