US President Donald Trump on Monday told relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea that their loved ones were « very much on my mind » and promised to work to bring them home.

The US leader made the comments during a brief meeting with around a dozen relatives as part of a state visit to Japan, the second time he has met with the families of the missing.

« The stories are very sad, » he said at the sombre gathering, surrounded by family members, some clutching framed photographs of their missing loved ones.

Japan suspects dozens of its citizens were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean agents to train their spies in Japanese language and culture.

The abductions are a potent and emotional issue in Japan, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe even promising to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un if it would help resolve the long-running question.

« I can see why your great prime minister feels so strongly about it, » Trump told the gathered family members.

« I can tell you that it is very much on my mind, » he added.

« And we will be working together to bring the relatives, children, sons, your mothers, home. »

Relatives of the missing thanked Trump for raising the issue in two rounds of talks with Kim, including a summit in Hanoi in February that broke down without an agreement.

Trump’s efforts were producing « concrete progress towards the resolution of the abduction issue, » said Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi is among the missing.

Megumi was kidnapped on her way home from school in 1977 aged only 13, and is the youngest among the 17 officially listed as abductees by the Japanese government.

In 2004, North Korea handed over cremated remains it claimed were Megumi’s. However, Tokyo said DNA tests conducted in Japan proved the claim to be untrue.

Her brother sat next to their mother during the meeting, holding a photo of his sister dressed in a pink and white checkered kimono.

« We have the greatest trust in you and also in Prime Minister Abe, » Yokota told Trump, who was sitting next to his wife Melania, along with Abe and his wife Akie.

– ‘Break this deadlock’ –

Koichiro Iizuka, whose mother Yaeko Taguchi was kidnapped in 1978, urged Trump and Abe to « break this deadlock. »

« My mother has been separated from her son, as well as her family members, for the past 41 years, » he said.

« I sincerely hope Mr. Prime Minister and President will break this deadlock… so as to bring about the return of my mother as soon as possible. »

In 2002, North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese civilians, but the government in Tokyo believes at least 17 were taken to train Pyongyang’s agents.

A month later, five were allowed to return to Japan. Pyongyang insists the other eight are dead but has not produced cast-iron evidence.

Taguchi is among those Pyongyang says died, in a traffic accident, but a North Korean defector has cast doubt on that account.

Under an agreement brokered in Stockholm in May 2014, North Korea undertook to reinvestigate all abductions of Japanese citizens in what appeared to be a significant breakthrough on an issue that has long hampered Tokyo’s relations with Pyongyang.

But there has been little progress since then, despite new diplomatic momentum towards peace on the Korean peninsula.