Having given a historical essay on the development of the problem in previous material, we now proceed to the current news, which at a minimum shows a continuation to the dialog.
First of all, the DPRK established a special committee to investigate the facts of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens in North Korea. The committee consists of approximately 30 people under the supervision of the deputy minister of public security, So Tae Ha. So Tae Ha is also adviser to the Defense Committee, the highest governing body in North Korea. The Committee is considered to have been given very serious power and has already begun its work.
Secondly, on July 4th 2014, in response to the establishment of the above-mentioned Committee, the government of Japan decided to cancel three types of sanctions imposed against North Korea. The following have been canceled: restrictions on tourist exchange between the two countries; the requirement to provide information relating to the transfer of money into North Korea making such transactions extremely difficult; a ban on humanitarian North Korean ships in Japanese ports.
The above-listed sanctions were imposed by Japan against North Korea in 2006, in addition to UN Security Council sanctions. Since 2009 Tokyo has had tightened conditions for money transfers from Japan to the DPRK. In April 2013, these sanctions were extended for another two years.
The rest of the sanctions remain in place, including prohibitions on North Korean luxury cruise ship “Mangyongbong” entering Japanese ports, and a complete ban on bilateral commercial exchange. The lifting of the sanctions does not affect North Korean organizations’ and individuals’ accounts that have been frozen in Japanese banks. Moreover, sanctions based on UN Security Council resolutions will remain in place as well.
As Yoshihide Suga, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary stated on July 3rd at a press conference, “the time-frame by which North Korea will present the first results of the investigation is not defined, but we agree with the DPRK that this should happen in late summer or early autumn.”
According to Suga, Japan can send its team of specialists to North Korea to get an explanation on the investigation’s progress. Additionally, the government is considering interviewing interested persons in North Korea, and if necessary, sharing information with them.
Suga denied suggestions that prime minister Shinzo Abe plans to visit North Korea after the final results of the investigation are ready. He said that the government is now concentrating mainly on closely monitoring the process of the investigation.
This information was confirmed by the North Korean side as well; its representative Song Il Ho spoke about this at a press meeting. Song noted that his government will remember Japan’s appeal to conduct an investigation in the course of the year, and he confirmed that North Korea will hold an investigation on an urgent basis and will report its results as soon as possible.
Naturally some relatives and the members of support groups of the kidnapped people have doubts about the decision to remove the sanctions at this stage. For example, Sakiye Yokota, Megumi’s mother, expressed the view that it is better to have the government take care of such matters after the investigation has confirmed the kidnapped party’s fate. Yokota expressed confidence that all the abductees are alive, and stated that she continues not to trust North Korea and wants Japanese government representatives to know that the matter cannot be left in a state of uncertainty.
The next round of this story will likely unfold in autumn. In the meantime here is why the problem of the kidnapping is linked to the overall situation in North Korean-Japanese relations.
First of all, Tokyo often pushes the “abduction” theme at times when Japan needs to fend off accusations made against it, as this is one of the few situations in which Japan has been the injured party. Such accusations are numerous. Given the changing course of Tokyo’s self-defense forces, the number of parties accusing the Land of the Rising Sun of militarism as well as the desire to review the outcome of the Second World War have both increased.
In fact, we seem to forget that in the cold war era such a practices were used not only by the DPRK. Even setting aside the capture by Taiwan’s navy of the Russian oil tanker “Tuapse,” remember, that in the magazine “Volgan Choson” (#4, 2006, pgs. 183-192) a KGB officer’s memoirs were published in which he admitted to kidnapping Northern peoples. And these abductions too have given way to public opinion as “those who chose freedom.”
Secondly, to Tokyo North Korea has always been an excellent means of achieving their goals both within the country and in relations with the international community. In response to any North Korean spear-shaking, Japan not only demonstrates a remarkable level of military hysteria (including the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems in urban areas), but also expresses the need to increase the military budget and to create (naturally, in conjunction with the U.S.) a missile defense system, the extent of which exceeds all necessary requirements for confronting the “North Korean threat” and which is explicitly directed against Russia and China.
The same thing happens when the Japanese leadership rating drops. After that, we can almost always expect some movement, either “to” or “from” the DPRK. So, as a number of South Korean analysts believe, Pyongyang wants to ease the sanctions while Abe wants to strengthen the Japanese presence there.
In this regard the abduction question is a particularly valuable card. The campaign is being used for a number of purposes not especially related to the abduction or even to Korea. If necessary, it is often forgotten, but if you need to destroy an emerging consensus between the DPRK and the international community, bringing up the kidnapping is a good way to make Pyongyang slam the door.
Some Japanologists are beginning to believe that whether Megumi Yokota is alive or not is not very important to the authorities. If Japan wants their people back, it is logical to assume that, in order to save the lives of the kidnapped people, all the negotiations should be held in absolute secret, if only because the principle of “no person – no problem” for the DPRK is in theory very acceptable. In private conversation, most Japanese people are coming to accept the possibility of a tragic outcome; however, speculating about it is too good an opportunity to improve their ratings, which is why the theme comes up again and again.
Are the kidnapped people alive or not? The Japanese point of view is based on the idea that, at the time of death, they were 40-50 years old, and this is not a time when you can die of natural causes. However let’s not forget the 1995-97 famine, when 600 thousand people died from malnutrition and disease. Not having a particularly privileged status, the abducted parties could have died at that time.
However, regardless of whether the kidnapped people are alive or not, it is not in the DPRK’s interests to compromise in this matter. Even if “the kidnapped parties are suddenly found to have been alive all this time,” the situation of 2002 will be repeated, when North Korea’s admission did not bring a positive result and only worsened the DPRK’s reputation: if they’ve lied about the abduction, what else are they lying about? Should we believe their assurances and justifications, if they’ve already been caught like that?
In Japan it will be extremely difficult to take North Korea’s version of events at face value. If a renewed investigation reveals that everyone, including Megumi, has long since died, will the relatives and public opinion be able to tolerate that? And what exactly should we do with the large group of specialists and editorialists for whom speculation on the abduction has become a good source of income?
The idea of a dialog in the RK is frowned upon, where we’ve already heard statements like, “Japanese-North Korean cooperation should not be detrimental to the pan-Korean and regional cooperation or stir up discord in the existing blocks.”
On the other hand, it should be noted that if one can set ideological and historical contradictions aside, North Korea could prove a good place to put some Japanese capital to use. Some economists even believe this would allow Japan to overcome the recession, resume their economic growth and become more actively involved in North East Asia’s integration processes.
This process will of course comprise a few bumps in the road, because the North Koreans will require significant compensation for the colonial past; however, better a bad peace than a good quarrel.
If we imagine for a moment that Abe, the personification of tough Japanese policy, after relevant events is still willing to accept North Korea’s side of the story, an interesting turn of events could result between the two countries, comparable to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the RK and Japan in 1965. Before then, under Syngman Rhee, anti-Japanese sentiment was no less a part of Korea’s official ideology than anti-communist sentiment. However, despite significant internal resistance, Park Chung-hee was able to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries, and an influx of Japanese investment is considered one of the reasons for the Korean economic miracle.
It’s not clear how the latest attempt to cut this Gordian knot will turn out, but, in the author’s opinion, it’s long-since time to give it a rest. The truth may be unpleasant for this or that reason, but it’s better than continued deception and exploiting tragedies.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D in history, leading research partner at the Russian Academy of Science’s Far East Institute’s center for Korean research, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.