MOTHER’S THOUGHTS 40 YEARS AFTER DAUGHTER’S ABDUCTION BY NORTH KOREA
The record of Japan’s negotiations with North Korea over the past two decades is studded with a series of failures attributable to the deceptive practices of the reclusive autocracy. Given this history, an early resolution of the abduction issue remains extremely difficult. If at all possible, however, their release would most likely be possible under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has pledged to do everything he can to bring the abductees home.
In Tokyo on November 6, 17 members of the abductees’ families were met by President Trump on the first leg of his five-nation Asian visit. Among them was Mrs. Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was kidnapped by North Korean operatives in Niigata Prefecture 40 years ago, when she was 13. I spoke to Sakie by phone that evening at her home in Kawasaki, near Tokyo, her voice hoarse after a long day:
“My husband has just got back from his day-care center and is now resting himself on the sofa. I myself got home a little while ago after having the honor of meeting President Trump who kindly showed strong interest in the abduction issue.”
Next week will mark the 40th year since Megumi disappeared, and 20 years since the national police belatedly determined that she and a significant number of other missing Japanese had been abducted by North Korea. The Association of Families of the Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVNK) was formed at the time. Megumi would be 53 this year. Both her parents are getting on in years; Shigeru is 84 and ailing, and Sakie 81.
The long years of grief, despair, anger, and unfulfilled prayers have taken a heavy toll on the Yokotas’ health. Sakie relayed to me what she had told Trump during the meeting at the Akasaka Guest House earlier in the day:
“I told the president I was pleasantly surprised that he so kindly referred to the abduction issue during his address at the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, reminding the world of the egregious state crime North Korea has committed. I also wanted to humbly express our sincere thanks for his taking the trouble of meeting our group today despite his extremely tight schedule. That was all I could say, mindful that each of us had only one minute to state our case.”
During the early afternoon meeting, which lasted slightly over a half hour, the family members sat in a circle very close to President and Mrs. Trump as well as Prime Minister and Mrs. Abe. All reportedly listened very attentively to what she said. Sakie said Trump took in his own hand an old family photo that her son Takuya carried, showing her, little Megumi, and her twin brothers walking happily side-by-side. “The President and the First Lady stared at the photo for a long time without uttering a word,” she observed.
Following Sakie, Hitomi Soga, 56, spoke to the Trumps about her mother Miyoshi, 81, who was forced into a North Korean spy ship together with herself in 1978, also in Niigata. Her mother is still missing. Hitomi, who returned to Japan in 2002, became the first Japanese abductee to be received by an American president.
Sakie had this to say about her impression of the third American president she has met since 2006: “President Trump was far from the image of the fierce-looking American leader I am used to seeing on television. On the contrary, he struck me as a very warm-hearted family man. I must admit that I was absolutely overwhelmed by his size. The First Lady was also very tall. I really felt like a dwarf, standing only 152 centimeters (barely 5 feet) tall.”
Demonic Dictatorship Called North Korea
In her tenacious campaign to obtain the release of her daughter, Sakie had previously met with George Bush in Washington in 2006 and Barak Obama in Tokyo in 2014.
Bush warmly welcomed her to the Oval Office, where he gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze and affectionately called her “Mom.” He struck her as a president of a sunny disposition.
Sakie’s meeting with Obama took place also at the Guest House in Akasaka. She recalled that Obama showed up late for the meeting with the victims’ families but talked with them without taking a seat throughout. She said she got the impression of Obama as “calm and not given to open expressions of emotion.”
By contrast, Sakie got quite a favorable impression of Trump as a world leader who has more to share with her and her colleagues emotionally, as demonstrated by the strong opinion on the abduction issue he voiced at the UN. Sakie remarked:
“Since our daughter’s abduction, my husband and I have been living our lives to the fullest every day; it has been a very long journey. North Korea is a demonic dictatorship. Our hearts go out to the people of North Korea. We have been pleading for the same thing over these years—a release of all of the abductees.
“Initially, nobody took us seriously when we said North Korean agents wrested our Megumi and many others away. But things are different today, with an American president listening sympathetically to us and and passing on our story to the rest of the world. Thank God North Korea’s bizarre behavior has finally been exposed to the international community. It has been an incredibly long and agonizing 40 years. I sometimes wonder if this much time was somehow necessary to finally get our story out and understood.
Sakie said she has come to accept her life as dictated by fate. She takes a similar view of Megumi’s life, noting with a deep sigh that their lives have been tough, to say the least.
Sakie feels that, in the short time allotted, each member managed to relay to Trump the sentiments of these families who have been mercilessly deprived of their loved ones and to this day unsure of their wellbeing and whereabouts. As regards this point, Tsutomu Nishioka, AFVNK president and an expert on Korean affairs who has been involved in the abduction issue over the past 20 years, had this to say:
“American pressure at this juncture is certainly a great boon to Japan, but our members are well aware that the abduction issue is after all a Japanese problem—not an American problem. They fully realize that it was very fortunate for them to be given a chance to explain to an American president what the problem is all about, but that it would be putting the saddle on the wrong horse to expect the US government to do something for them. In that vein, I am very proud of our members as very mature adults and fine examples of Japanese at our best.”
In the two previous meetings that the families had with America presidents, their official schedule was not announced until the last minute, keeping them wondering if the meetings would materialize at all. In stark contract, their meeting with Trump was plainly marked in the official presidential schedule as an event to be hosted by Abe and his wife—an official function as important as the president’s meetings with members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces and the US forces in Japan. That alone serves as huge pressure on North Korea, Nishioka notes, adding:
“President Trump brought himself to listen to the families as part of his official schedule. I have no doubt that Abe prompted Trump to feel that way. This is significant. It allows the Japanese government to resolve the abduction issue ahead of the nuclear issue—should Kim Jong-un or the next North Korean administration minus Kim be driven to a corner and signal a willingness to open negotiations on the abduction matter. ”
Japan’s Own Sanctions against North Korea
If Japan had previously decided to act on its own to resolve the abduction issue first, the US would likely have regarded such a move as a betrayal by its ally. Now that Trump has heard what the families had to say about their plight, however, Nishioka feels the US would react differently should Japan respond to a possible North Korean overture regarding a release of the abductees.
Also, it is rationally impossible for Japan to act against the will of the US on the nuclear issue. North Korea’s nuclear menace is undoubtedly a more immediate threat to Japan than to the US.
As the road to a comprehensive resolution of the tensions with North Korea may most likely be long and stormy, the Japanese government cannot afford to miss a chance to settle the abduction issue, no matter how slim it may be. In his ardent effort to secure that slim chance of success, Abe has endeavored to get the US and the international community to exert mounting pressure on Kim Jong-un that will eventually drive him into a corner where he will be forced to beg for his life.
I can easily expect liberal dailies like the Asahi Shimbun to react angrily to such a view, asserting that “Japan should seek to engage North Korea in a dialogue.” But the Asahi’s reporters should first take a good look at the address Abe delivered at the UN in September last year. Citing specific facts, Abe at the time meticulously explained how the world, not just Japan, had repeatedly been deceived and tricked by Pyongyang since the early 2000s. Abe’s persuasive argument, based on indisputable facts, helped to convince the world to impose sanctions.
Trusting what was asserted in such venues as the six-party talks, the world has provided Pyongyang funds and oil. As a result, an impoverished nation mired by constant famines and meager industrial output as of 1994 is now in the process of obtaining hydrogen bombs and ICBMs. This being the case, the only path to a resolution is no longer a dialogue but increasing pressure aimed at bringing Pyongyang to its senses. Kim must be convinced that his own life is at risk unless he gives up his missile and nuclear programs and returns all of the abeductees to Japan.
Abe said on November 6 that he would announce Japan’s own plans to freeze the assets of 35 North Korean groups and individuals. This, I believe, is one step in the right direction towards obtaining a return of Megumi and other abductees to their homeland.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 778 in the November 16, 2017 issue of The Weekly Shincho)