Deputy foreign chief Saiki eyed as new top bureaucrat at ministry

The government plans to appoint Deputy Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki as new vice foreign minister, the top bureaucrat at the Foreign Ministry, and may finalize the personnel change by the end of this month, a government source said Friday.

Saiki, 60, formerly director general of the ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, has extensive experience in dealing with the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, an issue championed by current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The envisioned appointment is thus believed to show Abe's resolve to tackle the thorny abduction issue, which has for years tormented the victims and their family members, and been a major obstacle to normalizing ties between Japan and North Korea.

The personnel change would be rare given that the current vice foreign minister, Chikao Kawai, was appointed to the ministry's top bureaucratic post only in September. The post is normally served for two years.

Kawai, however, was appointed by the government led by the then ruling Democratic Party of Japan. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party came to power in December following a landslide victory in the general election the same month.

Kawai, 60, will be appointed ambassador to the United Nations, according to the source.

Saiki is known to hold views similar to Abe's on issues such as the dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and a territorial row with South Korea over a pair of islands in the Sea of Japan.

As deputy director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, Saiki went to Pyongyang in October 2002 to fly five abductees back to Japan.

For three years from 2008, he served as Japan's chief negotiator in multilateral talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions and held working-level meetings with North Korean officials.

While the DPJ was in power, Saiki served as ambassador to India and was appointed in September as deputy foreign minister in charge of political affairs.