28.06.2014 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The issue of North Korea abducting Japanese citizens

highres_00000402099275May 29, 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Pyongyang promised to start a new investigation in to the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean secret services in the 1970-80s. The agreement was the result of a three-day inter-governmental consultation between Tokyo and Pyongyang recently held in Stockholm. In this regard, the Japanese even promised to cancel some sanctions against North Korea if the North were to reopen an investigation.

While Japanese authorities demand to accept the official representatives in DPRK and relatives of the victims organize a rally under the slogan, “do not let the DPRK deceive us again,” we use this event to elaborate to the general reader about the “issue of abduction”, which, in recent decades, is a major stumbling block for Japanese and North Korean relations.

We recall that on November 15, 1977 in Niigata 13-year-old M. Yokota was kidnapped and taken to North Korea. Then, if you believe North Korean authorities, from June 1978 to July 1983, another 13 Japanese and Japanese women who were abducted by North Korean agents and secretly taken to the DPRK. From them eight were abducted by North Korean agents and five arrived in North Korea with their own consent.

Why did this occur? Under the North Korean version of events, after the incident with Megumi Yokota, some of the leadership the secret services had the idea to abduct Japanese citizens to use them as teachers of Japanese and provide the North Korean illegals with documents and biographies of real people.

But this explanation seems odd. Random people cannot make good “teachers by design”, ready to tell agents everything about life in Japan. The use of personal data of the disappeared persons is an even stranger version. This “Returning home”, on the contrary would attract some attention. Would a fake Japanese citizen operate in a third country; and here exactly is the precedent. A North Korean spy was arrested in Kazakhstan; Sin Gwang Su was using the documents and biography of one of the adducted citizens, using the name Hara.

One version implies a story of, “travel to Japan and abduct the first person you meet.” The implication here is that it was part of the final test for employment with Special Forces. If this is really true, then it is a silly initiative, the authors of which should be punished to the fullest extent. It was implicitly spoken about by the wording of Kim Jong Il, who explained the abduction of Japanese citizens as “some people wanting to show their heroism and adventurism,” and thus avoid taking the blame.

Disappearances and potential involvement of North Korea was not especially a secret, but in the course of negotiations Pyongyang and Tokyo on the normalization of relations in the late 80s and early 90s, the problem of abduction was not raised at all. The main thing was to agree on compensation for the colonial past (North Korean demands were great and they failed to reach a settlement). Public opinion was also not particularly interested in the question of abduction.

Rumors and suspicions from the Japanese side were pushed towards a more concrete investigation only after the explosion of a South Korean plane in 1987, when “the North Korean Mata Hari,” (the story of which we’ll at some point devote a separate article), stated that she was studying Japanese in North Korea with a Japanese woman, similar to the one who went missing in 1978, Taguti Yaeko. But all the same, on March 28, 1995, when Pyongyang set out with the policy of rapprochement, a “diplomatic landing”, headed by Yukio Hatoyama, “the problem of abduction” was removed from the official agenda as being “harmful” and not conducive to a constructive dialogue for the normalization of relations.

Only when the officials of the two countries met in Beijing in August 1997, did the Japanese request for help of the North Koreans in clarifying the circumstances on the fate of the “disappeared” Japanese. It was then that the wording of the “missing citizens” was replaced with the wording, “abducted citizens”, and the North Korean side agreed to investigate the matter by a joint commission of representatives of the Red Cross.

In November 1997, a delegation headed by Yoshiro Mori visited North Korea and offered to Pyongyang the option of releasing those abducted to third countries where they could be “found”. This step demonstrated commitment on the part of Tokyo to “close their eyes” to the formal aspect of the problem, but concessions during the course of the meetings were not achieved.

After the launch of the North Korean “satellite” and rumors about Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the public opinion among the Japanese placed the problem of the abducted and the military weapons program of North Korea as equally importance. The Foreign Ministry could not ignore the media hysteria. And when, in June 1998, the North Korean Red Cross notified the Japanese side that none of the abducted Japanese were detected, Tokyo said that Japan would not renew dialogue with the North Koreans until at least some data is received on the fate of the missing Japanese.

On March 7, 2000, Japan agreed to provide the North Koreans with 100,000 tons of rice. Such a gesture was noted: The DPRK Red Cross reported that the investigation will resume on the “abducted Japanese citizens,” and inform Japan if they are discovered. At this point the North Koreans indicated that they would refuse to continue dialogue if Tokyo persisted in using the term “abducted”.

On December 27, 2001 the North Korean Red Cross announced the suspension of the investigation, but with the Bush administration coming to power, this made Pyongyang’s position more flexible. In April 2002, Kim Jong Il made it clear that the issue of missing persons may be a topic for future bilateral negotiations, and on September 17, 2002 during a visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korea, Kim Jong Il apologized for the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens. With this it was stated that nobody was punished because of it, but for those who was directly responsible for the kidnapping operation were sentenced in 1998.

As for the fate of those who were abducted, the North Koreans announced that five people survived, and eight died from illness or accidents, but most of their graves were washed away during floods. Characteristically, the dead were declared all those who had arrived in North Korea on their own free will.

What were the goals of the North Koreans for such an act? Beginning in 2001 they have attempted there to launch a mechanism of market changes and reforms that could not be accomplished without massive financial bailouts. The source of these funds is considered to be Japanese money.

In principle, the Great Leader took understandable and, in general, a decent position. “If we confess, then we can simply summarize it all under the line of being in the past and start anew to build normal relations with Japan.” However, for the Japanese the result of this recognition was different. The Japanese public was shocked and began to demand a detailed investigation. This was especially supported by the right-wing forces.

On October 15, 2002 five “survivors” arrived in Japan. It was assumed that, after spending some time in Japan, they will return to the North, but under the public pressure nobody returned. In addition, Japan has never believed that its citizens died of natural causes. Since most of those who had been abducted should have been 40 or 50 years old and felt that the mortality from natural causes at this age is unlikely, and therefore, people were either killed or held against their will. The theory of rather questionable gravesites was also perceived as an attempt to cover their tracks.

With the background of the second round of the nuclear crisis and the beginning of the six-party talks (2003) Japan continued to put pressure on Pyongyang. The United States did not raise any objections to the discussion of this problem in the six-party talks, but China, Russia and South Korea believed that the issue of abductions in the negotiating agenda was strongly opposed by Pyongyang and thus the whole process was stopped.

From the 9th of November to the 14th meetings were held with members of the Japanese representatives and the “Commission of Inquiry” which was established by order of Kim Jong Il. As part of this dialogue, North Korea returned the remains of two people to Japan, including Megumi Yokota.

And then a scandal occurred. The Japanese had performed a DNA analysis and found that the remains do not belong to any one of the abduction victims. However, the scientific journal «Nature» published an article on this subject, in which the results of this study were considered very critical. Actually, the researcher noted that the samples could be “contaminated” DNA of other people. In addition, samples were used in such a manner that, the holding of the further and more independent testing would be impossible.

It is unclear how this was done in order to prevent re-examination, but when Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hosoda Hiroyuki, called the article inadequate and a distortion of the facts, the most authoritative journal in the world of the natural sciences editorial answered, where it was written: “Japan has every right to question North Korea’s statement. But her interpretation of DNA tests violated the border of the freedom of science from political interference. An incorrectly carried out the examination is not proof of anything and the theory that “the examination” proved that the remains do not belong to Megumi” is invalid.

Nevertheless, a report of the Japanese government, published December 24, 2004, it was stated that the North Korean side was unable to produce evidence. This document caused an outcry in Pyongyang and resulted in another break in contacts between the two sides.

The reason for the resumption of dialogue between Tokyo and Pyongyang was the fourth round of six-party talks in Beijing on 4-8 February 2006. The Japanese made demands of the North Koreans: a) promptly return to Japan all the surviving Japanese abductees; b) thoroughly investigate the abduction; c) the transfer to the Japanese authorities those directly responsible for the crime. The discussion did not lead to a position of rapprochement among the parties. In response, on June 13, 2006 up for debate in the Japanese Parliament, a law was passed on Human Rights in North Korea, calling for the imposition of sanctions on the North Koreans.

In 2007, the issue of the abductees again played a role in the six-party talks, which approved a document under which North Korea was to disable its nuclear facilities in exchange for fuel oil. Japan refused to fulfill their part of fuel supplies, citing the ‘abduction issue”, although such behavior was open violation of the agreement.

In September 2007, the pendulum again shifted to the side in search of a consensus. In April 2008, the foreign ministers of Korea and Japan shared the view that the issue of abducted Japanese should not hinder the six-party talks; on the August 26, 2008 North Korea rejected the proposal by the representative of Japan that called for a “full investigation to ascertain the location and the return home of those who were abducted”.

During 2011 and 2012 the question was raised at nearly every meeting between the two countries. The drafting of the Kirby Commission report on the problem of human rights in North Korea did not pass without meeting the relatives of the abductees. .

On May 13, 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a supporter of a hardline approach to North Korea, said that he would consider a personal meeting with Kim Jong Un if it would help solve the issue. The resolution of the abductee issue he called one of the main objectives of his diplomatic initiatives.

At the end of May 2013, an advisor to the Prime Minister of Japan, Isao Iijima, and the Minister of State on the issue of Japanese abductees, Keiji Furuya visited North Korea and expressed hope that “North Korea will make the right decision on the issue of abducted Japanese citizens, returning all of them to their homeland and that this act would contribute to better relations between the two countries. “He, however at the same time declared that, Japan would refrain from providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea until the issue of the abducted Japanese citizens is fully resolved.

At the same time, public opinion began to prepare for a new round of revelations. Back in December 2012, the National Police Agency of Japan published information about the “exact number of alleged victims of abduction by North Korea”, declaring that they have detailed information on 864 people who may have been abducted by the North Korean side. And in June 2014 the newspaper, Mainichi, in reference to the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Esihide Suga, reported that the Japanese side had sent a list of the abducted to North Korea, numbering not 17, but 470 Japanese citizens. So the number of abductees is increased significantly, and the author’s opinion, there is an attempt to list all the unsolved disappearances on the North Koreans.

By now the issue of the abductees has largely become a matter of faith: the North Koreans do not have enough evidence that all abductees had died, and the matter is closed, and the Japanese do not want to believe the North Koreans so that at least the relatives maintain some hope. However, demonstration of readiness to engage in dialogue is a sign of good manners and a kind of demonstration of readiness for consensus in other areas.

Therefore, regardless of what the outcome of the next round of the “investigations”, attempts for the parties to meet the parties should be welcomed.

Konstantin Asmolov is a Ph.d of History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a columnist for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook”.


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