TIME FOR FLEXIBLITY ON NORTH KOREAN ABUDCTIONS
On September 17, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe renewed his vow to resolve the abduction issue at a gathering in Tokyo of family members of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Katsunobu Kato, minister in charge of the abduction issue, was also present at the rally, which attracted nearly 1,000 supporters.
One attending was Mrs. Sakie Yokota, 79, mother of Megumi who was kidnapped by North Korean agents at age 17 in Niigata in central northern Japan in 1977. Sakie wasn’t accompanied by her husband Shigeru, 83, who has fallen sick. The abductees’ parents are all elderly. Only five are still alive—the Yokotas; Akihiro, 87, and Kayoko Arimoto, 89, whose daughter Keiko was abducted in Denmark in 1983; and Nobuko Masumoto, 88, whose daughter Rumiko was abducted in 1978.
Remarked Ms. Yokota:
“We parents are all getting old. Our children have been in North Korean captivity for nearly four decades. Members of the family association are united around the conviction that Prime Minister Abe is committed to bring our children home. But we’re also concerned that too much time has lapsed waiting for their safe return. We really are at a loss how the abduction issue can be resolved.”
Professor Tsutomu Nishioka of Tokyo Christian University, an expert on Korean affairs who is president of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN), emphasizes that the Japanese government must take a bold step now to resolve the abduction issue.
He points out: “Very little time is left for both Japan and North Korea. For one thing, members of the victims’ families are all getting on in years. They are seriously concerned about the wellbeing of their children and in-laws who have been in North Korean captivity for so long. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-Un obviously has his own problems: in light of domestic instability in the hermit kingdom, he must be eagerly looking for effective counter-measures. Under such tense circumstances that both sides face, Kim has again conducted missile and nuclear bomb tests, further isolating his nation internationally. The entire world is criticizing and exerting pressure on Pyongyang. There’s no reason why Japan should not take full advantage of this situation.”
Nishioka notes that the international community exerts pressure on Pyongyang, but Japan is the only nation with its own set of sanctions in protest at the abduction of its citizens by North Korea. Japan, for example, won’t let some North Koreans reenter once they have left Japan. The policy, so far limited to top officials at the headquarters in Tokyo of the Association of (North) Korean residents, is being expanded to include officials of the Association’s local chapters.
Barring reentrance to Japan will be a serious blow to North Korean residents across Japan who regularly send donations to the North as proof of their allegiance to the Kim regime. Japan’s sanctions are far more stringent than the other nations, says Nishioka, but are something Tokyo has been fully justified in doing. Adds Nishioka:
“Mr. Abe has mentioned that sanctions can be effectively used twice—when they are applied, and when they are lifted. I believe now is the time for Japan to prompt Pyongyang to action by lifting some of our own sanctions.”
Pyongyang’s Revenue Source
Prof. Nishioka thus argues that Japan should relax its sanctions against Pyongyang. To do that, he stresses that Japan must divide its sanctions into two categories—one, sanctions in response to the North’s nuclear and missile policies, the other, in protest at the abductions of Japanese nationals.
Explains Nishioka: “It is of course out of the question for Japan to even consider urging the world to lift sanctions against the North’s nuclear adventure. However, I believe Japan can lift its own abduction-related sanctions. Japan can propose to lift these sanctions on condition that Pyongyang will return all of the Japanese abductees. It is our idea to leverage the abduction-related sanctions for an effective resolution of the abduction issue while sanctions for nuclear-and-missile matters stay in effect. We are hopeful that North Korea will find it more advantageous to accept this offer.”
A specific example of an economic sanction that Japan could immediately remove if Pyongyang returns the abductees is the ban on the import into Japan of the much-prized “matsutake” muschrooms, which are on the market in the North earlier than in Japan. At this point, North Korea cannot export to Japan mushrooms and all other products.
The mushrooms are an invaluable revenue source for North Korea. As was reported in detail by reporter Akio Yaita of Sankei Shimbun about a year ago, revenues from exported mushrooms, which fetch a high price in Japan, go to Room 39 of the Workers’ Party of Korea which is in charge of the Kim family’s secret slush funds. Because North Koreans cannot give up this precious revenue source, they sell them first to wholesalers in Yanji City, Jilin Province in China, where fake export permits allow them to be sold in Japan as produced in China.
This illicit sales network has reportedly begun to operate again this year. Ms. Eriko Yamatani, head of the government’s Headquarters for the Abduction Issue who has served as the Chairperson of the National Public Safety Commission, has issued directives to strengthen monitoring.
Prof. Nishioka emphasizes: “Such sanctions that Japan has imposed on its own can be relaxed when Pyongyang releases all of the Japanese abductees, which will allow them to start exporting mushrooms and other products to Japan openly. Meanwhile, Japan will honor its commitment to maintain nuclear-and-missile-related sanctions as a responsible member of the international community. I believe it is time for us to clearly inform Pyongyang which sanctions we can—or cannot—lift in order to prompt Kim to figure things out in a level-headed manner.”
Nishioka explains the significance of the meetings Japanese upper house lawmaker Antonio Inoki recently had in Pyongyang with two top North Korean officials—Kim Yong-nam, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea (second in command after Kim Jong-Un), and Li Su-yong, vice chairman of the Seventh Committee of the Workers Party of Korea (eighth in command).
Treating Nuclear and Missiles Separately from Abduction
Nishioka notes: “As North Korea’s ambassador to Bern, Ri Su-yong took young Kim Jong-Un under his wings while he was studying in Switzerland in the 1990s. It was also Ri who managed the secret slush fund Kim Jong-il kept at a Swiss bank. When he seized power, Jong-un called Ri back from Switzerland, appointing him Deputy Chairman of the Central Committee in charge of international affairs. (Jong-un himself is chairman). The fact that these two top North Korean officials trusted by Jong-il and Jong-un, including Kim Yong-nam who is the latter’s closest aide, met Inoki, who is just an independent Japanese lawmaker, I believe, strongly indicates that Pyongyang meant to send a message to Tokyo that it is eager to negotiate with Japan although it is in conflict with the international community.”
Jong-un is said to be keen to “retrieve” the one trillion yen (US$10 billion) that his father Jong-ill failed to obtain from former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi who allegedly promised the money in exchange for return of all Japanese abductees when he visited Pyongyang in 2004. Jong-un is quoted as declaring: “I’ll get that one trillion yen from Japan.”
It is hardly possible for Japan to deliver $10 billion to Pyongyang unless Kim completely abandons his absurd nuclear adventure. But it is also difficult to expect him to give up on nuclear arms on which he believes the North’s survival depends. If so, the UN sanctions will continue interminably and likely get more stringent, with no hope of Kim ever getting the $10 billion. Kim seemingly cannot understand the harsh reality of the international community that his nation faces.
To open a narrow but hopeful path to resolving the abduction issue and bring back the abductees, we must implement a two-pronged strategy separating sanctions against nuclear weapons and missiles from those against the abduction. For that purpose, Kim must have rational reason and a correct understanding of international realities. Further, ample communication between Tokyo and Pyongyang is mandatory. Would that be possible? Minister Kato is cautious, noting that there is no fundamental change in Japan’s posture towards a comprehensive solution to nuclear and abduction issues and that the government cannot name any likely go-between for possible negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Comments Megumi’s mother Sakie with a deep sigh:
“All of us members of the abductees’ families have many worries. However, we all keenly feel that only Prime Minister Abe will be able to resolve the abduction issue. We have our backs against the wall now. The new strategy may or may not work; but nothing ventured, nothing gained: nothing will come out of the present situation unless we make up our mind to do something drastic.”
I believe it is time to commence a new round of negotiations with Pyongyang, drawing a line between North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles and the abduction issue—no matter what form it may take.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 721 in the September 22, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)