WHY JAPAN FAILS TO RESOLVE NORTH KOREAN ABDUCTION ISSUE
At a late October meeting of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN), Sakie Yokota (80), a long-time leader of the group, indicated that neither she nor her husband (84) are in good health.
“My husband’s condition has not improved much, and I myself am suffering from a variety of ailments.”
Next November 15 will mark the 40th anniversary of their daughter Megumi’s abduction. The girl, who was 13 at the time, will have become a 53-yearold middle-aged woman. Already more than 20 years have passed since she was reported to be alive in North Korea.
Mrs. Yokota always asks the same question at these meetings: Why has Japan been unable to get its kidnapped citizens returned for such a long time? And if Japan cannot take care of its citizens overseas, does it even quality to be recognized as a nation-state?
NARKN has also annually invited families of South Korean and Thai victims of abduction by North Korea to their meetings. One year, a South Korean woman whose father had been kidnapped by the North, made a tearful plea for assistance. In her plea it was clear how envious she was of the support Japanese abductees have received. She noted that in Japan ordinary people as well as Diet members raise their voices in unison appealing for an early resolution of the abduction issue, demanding the release of Korean and Thai victims as well.
On the other hand, the Korean government and society in general remain largely indifferent to matters pertaining to the North’s abuductions. The victims’ families have all suffered terribly, with many of them hard pressed financially. And yet, stressed the daughter of the Korean abductee, Korean society flings cold words at his family as though he had done something terribly wrong. She explained that is why she is genuinely envious of the situation in Japan, where the government and the people jointly cry out for the release of the victims.
It is indeed true that over the past 20 years, it has been the objective of AFVKN to rescue all of the abductees, not just Japanese, vowing to never give up.
Their commitment to this cause was strongly felt at a gathering on December 11 in Toyokawa City, Aichi Prefecture. A host of photographs and materials relating to Megumi and Ms. Yaeko Taguchi—a 22-year-old mother of two little children when she was kidnapped in Tokyo in June of 1978—were on display at the train station. The meeting drew a large crowd that included Ms. Tsukiko Yagi, a member of the Toyokawa City assembly, and her supporters.
But is Japan really grappling with the abduction issue as squarely as the daughter of the Korean abductee believes? Although the government has pledged to do everything in its power to resolve the issue—thanks significantly to strong determination on the part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—it has yet to be able to live up to this commitment. Why?
“They Should Not Be Allowed to Return to North Korea”
I recently had a chance to discuss related matters with Ms. Kyoko Nakayama, head of the Party for Japanese Kokoro, who served former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi as Special Advisor for the North Korean abduction issue (2002-2004). As Japan’s envoy to Uzbekistan (1999-2002), Ms. Nakayama had to grapple with the abduction of four Japanese mining engineers and their interpreter in the neighboring Kirgyz Republic shortly after taking up her post. She eventually succeeded in obtaining their release. Her experience sheds light on why Japan has so far been unable to resolve the North Korean abduction issue.
The biggest reason Ms. Nakayama cites is that the Japanese government—the Foreign Ministry in particular—is sadly devoid of the notion that Japan as a nation-state has the responsibility to come to the aid of its citizens in trouble anywhere in the world. The government’s posture may have somewhat changed for the better since then, but the framework which allows it to remain indifferent to the security of Japanese overseas is still intact, according to Nakayama.
Let us look in more detail at what happened back in 2002. Ms. Nakayama returned to Japan in August that year after completing her three-year tour of duty in Uzbekistan, leaving the government on September 10. Some two weeks later, on September 26, she was named Special Advisor to the cabinet in charge of families of victims kidnapped by North Korea. She worked closely with Koizumi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, and Shinzo Abe, who then was Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. Recalls Ms. Nakayama:
“In my capacity as Special Advisor to the Cabinet, I flew to Pyongyang on October 15 to bring back to Japan five of the kidnap victims, including Kaoru Hasuike. From the day of their return, discussions as to their status were held daily within the government among officials concerned, centering around Mr. Abe. Most officials obviously took it for granted that the five would return to Pyongyang of their own volition after staying in Japan for just a week—a duration agreed on with North Korea. I felt that Mr. Abe was somehow uncomfortable with the arrangement. As for me, I strongly asserted that it did not make sense to let them return to the North.”
In point of fact, only Nakayama openly asserted that the abductees should not be allowed to return to North Korea. All others concerned, except for Abe, viewed her argument with skepticism.
“Their unanimous reaction was: why rock the boat when a decision has already been made?” she observes.
A week was about to pass, as the officials failed to reach a consensus under Abe. Someone proposed that the intent of the five be confirmed concerning their return to Pyongyang. Presuming that the proposal was based on the conviction that Hasuike would definitely express his desire to return to the North, Nakayama didn’t immediately object but was determined to stick to her opinion.
“I was firmly convinced that the five abductees should not be allowed to return, whether or not they wanted to return of their own volition. Meanwhile, our conference decided to postpone their stay by three days, until October 25, in order to allow some additional extra time to confirm their real intent.”
As it turned out, all of the five abductees wanted to remain in Japan. At the same time, they strongly urged the government to enable members of their families left behind in the North to join them in Japan. When the intent of the five was thus confirmed, however, a new problem cropped up, according to Ms. Nakayama. She recalls:
“The other members of our conference wanted to plow ahead with the argument that the government could not return the five to North Korea because they wished to remain in Japan. But I sternly disagreed, asserting that the proper thing to do was announce that they would remain in Japan because that’s what the Japanese government thought was the right thing to do. After that we again started talking past each other, and Mr. Abe proposed a break and adjourned the meeting.”
“Will of the State”
When Nakayama emerged from the conference hall, a host of journalists encircled her, and a young reporter asked what the problem was.
“His question took me by surprise,” recalls Nakayama. “Since I was in no position to elaborate, however, I simply replied that it had to do with ‘the will of the state.’”
To Nakayama, who had represented Japan as Ambassador to Uzbekistan and did her utmost to rescue four Japanese abductees from the neighboring Kirgyz Republic, resolving the North Korean abduction issue was not a matter of the individual wishes of the victims but rather a matter of the will of the state. She firmly believed a nation-state has the responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens—a commitment to rescuing them from whatever trouble they may be in anywhere in the world. But the mass media failed to understand her thinking, her reference to “the will of the state” itself prompting a sharp reaction.
“My office as well as my house were inundated by a horrendous number of faxes and telephone calls of protest,” remarks Nakayama. “Such a reaction may probably be unthinkable in today’s Japan, but that unfortunately was the case in this country as of October 2002.”
Thanks to Abe’s final decision, the government eventually made an announcement that the five abductees would remain in Japan, reflecting the will of the state—an incident that made Nakayama painfully aware that something is very abnormal with Japan as a nation.
In the general atmosphere prevailing in Japan since the end of the last war, the use of the world “state,” commonly used elsewhere in the international community, has become taboo. Traditional Japanese values have gone incredibly astray.
It appears that Japan has turned into a nation where discussing matters pertaining to the state’s will or responsibility itself is forbidden under its postwar constitution. No wonder the Foreign Ministry refrains from endeavoring to protect the lives of Japanese citizens overseas.
Sakie Yokota continues to question if Japan can be judged to be an authentic nation-state when it fails to obtain the return of its abducted citizens. Japan will hardly mature as a full-fledged democracy so long as it is cozily immersed in the spirit of the existing constitution. That means it will never be able, or willing, to save abduction victims.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 734 in the December 22, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)