TIME FOR CONCERTED EFFORT IN JAPN TO RESOLVE ABDUCTION ISSUE
It has been a full six years since I launched my weekly “Genron” Internet news show airing at 9 p.m. every Friday, basically comprising two one-hour programs. Marking the anniversary of the launch on September 21, I presented a two-hour special feature tackling North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens.
Forty-one years have lapsed since Megumi Yokota, then a 13-year-old junior high school student in Niigata Prefecture, was kidnapped by North Korean agents on the beach near her home. Her 82-year-old mother Sakie, whom I invited as a guest to my show, recalled:
“It was the morning of November 15, 1977. As usual, Megumi had a good breakfast and drank her milk. When her classmate came to pick her up, Megumi said, ‘There she is! I’ve got to go, Mom,’ and dashed out in high spirits. That was the last I saw of her…”
Darkness descends quickly in Niigata in November. Megumi failed to come home long after dark. Sakie searched everywhere she could think of for her daughter. Holding a flashlight in her hand, she searched the unlit beach near her house, frantically calling Megumi’s name as her legs trembled with the fear of what might have happened to her daughter.
Megumi had suddenly vanished like mist. Alone at home during the day, Sakie spent countless hours crying her heart out in the months afterwards. Overwhelmed by grief, she even thought of drowning herself in the sea.
Nineteen years later, in 1996, the first news about Megumi—that she was alive in North Korea—was brought to Sakie by a former secretary to a Communist Party parliamentarian. She recalled:
“In my excitement at the time, I somehow thought, ‘So Megumi is alive! And she will come back to Japan in one to two years!’ But Kenji Ishidaka, a TV Asahi producer who was then working on a documentary on Megumi, warned that it would take at least several years because ‘North Korea is a very difficult country to deal with.’”
Twenty-two long years have passed since then, and Megumi will be turning 54 soon somewhere in North Korea. Sakie talked worriedly about Shigeru (85), her ailing husband:
“For a time, he was really not in good shape, which concerned me greatly. But now he is gradually feeling better. I cannot afford to spend my time crying as I often did in Niigata during those early days. My husband and I have fought and prayed for Megumi’s return together every single day for the past 41 years. There is absolutely no reason why Japan should be so weak that it can’t secure the return of its citizens from North Korea.”
Acts of Terrorism
Sakie is asking a simple question: why can’t Japan come to the aid of its own citizens in trouble overseas? Towards this end, she wants all Japanese to work together in supporting the efforts of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe designed to obtain the release of all of the abductees.
Tsutomu Nishioka, another guest last Friday, pointed out that the abduction issue may look to be deadlocked but that that is part of Abe’s calculated game plan. A leading expert on Korean affairs, Nishioka stressed that talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang have not made headway yet because Abe, backed solidly by President Donald Trump, has showed no signs of modifying Japan’s demand that Pyongyang release all of the Japanese abductees simultaneously before expecting to negotiate diplomatic normalization or economic aid. Explained Nishioka:
“The previous Japanese way of dealing with the North Koreans had a serious flaw: whenever talks with them made no progress, the Japanese side viewed it as a problem and softened its demands. Faced with a tough North Korean posture, Japan easily made compromises. North Korea would then make some small concessions, and this would be take as a sign of progress in the talks. But such ‘progress’ has not led to a fundamental solution of the abduction issue. The important thing in negotiating with the North is to never tone down our demands.”
Megumi’s younger brother Yokota (50) had this to say:
“I’ve been to the US a number of times with other family members of the abductees to appeal for American support. Mr. Armitage, former Assistant Secretary of State, emphasized to us that we Japanese must call the shots in resolving the issue, rather than letting North Korea take the lead.”
The US is committed to protecting the lives of its citizens overseas. These abductions by North Korea are acts of terrorism, and I find utterly reasonable Mr. Armitage’s contention that we Japanese must resolve this issue on our own.
Takuya said he feels that the understanding of the abduction issue has rapidly been growing in the inner circle of the US government. He noted:
“The toughest part about our visits was that there was a long period in which we had to explain the same things from the beginning over and over again each time. We could find only a handful of Americans who understood a fraction of what we had to say. But there was a big difference last September, as most of the people we met in the US appeared to understand the fundamental nature of the issue.
“For instance, Mr. Matthew Pottinger, Senior Director for Asia with the National Security Council, told us in Washington on September 12: ‘The eight Japanese abductees who Pyongyang had pronounced dead, including Megumi-san, are alive, aren’t they? President Trump fully understands your parents’ earnest desire to see your sister as soon as possible, as he also has a daughter and a wife he truly loves. I will be sure to talk to him again about your case. He does understand the suffering you are going through.”
A week later, on September 19, Trump referred to Megumi’s abduction in his address at the United Nations General Assembly. Observed Takuya: “The president of the US took the trouble of telling the world about the plight of a private citizen of America’s Pacific ally. Thanks to him, the world recognized for the first time what the North Korean abductions are all about. President Trump’s message exerted a lot of pressure on the North.”
Backed wholeheartedly by Trump, Abe is determined to settle the abduction issue once and for all in an eventual face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un. The only deal Japan will accept is a “safe and simultaneous return of all of the abductees” before negotiating diplomatic normalization or economic aid.
Obstacle: Pro-Pyongyang Japanese Parliamentarians
We Japanese must all rally together behind that goal. While high-ranking US government officials have fundamentally come to grips with what must be done to resolve the issue, there have been some very disconcerting moves on the part of some Japanese parliamentarians. Typical is what we have seen from members of the bipartisan and pro-Pyongyang Japan-North Korea Parliamentary League to Promote Diplomatic Normalization. Nishioka pointed out a recent ploy by this group obviously aimed at hindering Abe’s policy towards the North.
“This group sponsored a gathering in June, inviting two questionable speakers—Kim Jiyong, Pyongyang bureau chief of the Chosun Sinbo, a weekly of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of (North) Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon in Korean), and Hitoshi Tanaka, former deputy foreign minister.”
Allegedly, Kim argued that the abduction issue had already been fully settled between Pyongyang and Tokyo, and Tanaka proposed that liaison offices be set up in Tokyo and Pyongyang to jointly investigate matters relating to the abductions.
“Shigeru Ishiba, who was defeated by Abe in the September 20 ruling party presidential election, also was present at the meeting,” Nishioka noted. “Leading members of the Chongryon frequently call on Japanese parliamentarians to try and put ideas into their heads. Actually, Ishiba’s campaign pledge reflected in part ideas advanced by the North Koreans.”
While holding out a promise that he would open liaison offices in both capitals if he were elected as Abe’s successor, Ishiba stated that Japan should depart from the notion that Tokyo-Pyongyang relations would not turn better without thoroughly resolving the abduction issue.
Takuya brushed aside Ishiba’s views as “weak-kneed and nonsensical—nothing but a sabotage of Prime Minister Abe’s North Korean strategy.”
North Korea is a terror state in which its Workers’ Party controls the public by numbering every one of its citizens. As Takuya correctly described it, it is absolutely nonsensical to open a liaison office in Pyongyang to jointly investigate the truth about the North’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s.
At least two major hurdles must be cleared before the abduction issue is satisfactorily resolved. Firstly, an agreement must be reached between the US and North Korea on a complete disposal of the North’s nuclear missiles. To make that possible, it is mandatory to continue exerting pressure on the North.
Secondly, negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang must progress without being influenced by hostile forces. North Korea still thinks it can deceive Japanese public opinion. It is words and deeds like those of the pro-Pyongyang parliamentarians’ group mentioned earlier that allow the North Koreans to continue to think so. But we are no longer so easily tricked by the North. It is time for we Japanese—average citizens and members of political parties alike—to come together to resolutely reject the ideas of all hostile forces and make up our minds to cooperate in obtaining an early simultaneous release of all of the abductees.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 821 in the October 4, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)