IS NHK TRYING TO REWRITE HISTORY NOW THAT SHINZO ABE IS GONE?
In its popular “Today’s Close-Up” on September 14, the public broadcast station NHK featured Hitoshi Tanaka in a program entitled “Behind the Scenes of First Japan-North Korea Summit: Recollections of A Former Diplomat“. As head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia and Oceanic Affairs Bureau, Tanaka was instrumental in bringing about the summit between Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-il in September of 2002. Among the key issues to be tackled were normalization of diplomatic relations and the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea.
As a journalist, I myself have been closely involved in covering the abduction issue over the years. That was why I watched the 30-minute program with particular attention, but I strongly felt there were blatant lies in Tanaka’s remarks and critical flaws on the part of the editors. In an attempt to validate the statements the ex-diplomat made on the program, I invited two of the nation’s top experts on the North Korean abductions to my Friday night “Genron” Internet TV news show two weeks later, on September 30—Tsutomu Nishioka, a Korean Peninsula specialist and head of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN), and Rui Abiru, a member of the editorial board of the conservative Sankei Shimbun. Abiru covered former prime minister Shinzo Abe’s dogged efforts to resolve the abduction issue more energetically than any of his colleagues.
Tanaka (75), named head of the bureau in September 2001, was given Koizumi’s full backing in engaging in close to 30 rounds of secret negotiations with Pyongyang over the next year. The program explained Tanaka’s approach to the negotiations as follows:
“Tanaka endeavored to persistently appeal to Pyongyang to create a peaceful environment on the entire Korean Peninsula by agreeing to comprehensively resolve a host of problems affecting our two nations—the abduction, the North’s nuclear and missile development program, diplomatic normalization, and future economic cooperation.”
Tanaka is seen saying:
“Our negotiations would surely have been stalled without being able to settle the abduction issue. I told the North Korean negotiators there would be no effective discussions on the money they wanted to see pouring in from Japan without matters involving the abduction and nuclear program being resolved. I told them that we needed to look at the ‘bigger picture.’ Throughout the negotiations, I continued to emphasize that we needed to resolve all of these problems comprehensively—as a package.”
As someone who has extensively covered the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea for more than 20 years, I simply cannot believe that Tanaka and the Foreign Ministry grappled wholeheartedly with this issue as part of a comprehensive package.
“At the time, I was assigned to the prime minister’s official residence to cover the abduction issue. As I recall, Koizumi as well as chief cabinet secretary Takeo Fukuda and his deputy Teijiro Furukawa clearly put that issue on the back burner. As a matter of fact, asked if Koizumi was visiting Pyongyang to obtain the release of abductees during a news conference, Furukawa replied with a plain “no,” emphasizing that Koizumi’s purpose was to normalize diplomatic relations. The prime minister himself told members of his ruling party during evening get-togethers that they should not expect too much from him in terms of resolving the abduction. For any political leader, restoring normal diplomatic ties is a feather in the cap, and the same can go for Foreign Ministry bureaucrats.”
“Our Daughter Is Alive in North Korea”
Incidentally, public opinion was largely indifferent to the abduction issue then, with the liberal Asahi Shimbun at the front of such public opinion-making. In its editorial dated August 31, 1999, the Asahi wrote: “There are several obstacles blocking diplomatic normalization between Tokyo and Pyongyang, including the abduction of Japanese citizens.” No wonder the editorial drew angry responses from the families of the abductees, especially Sakie Yokota, the mother of Megumi Yokota who was abducted by North Korean agents in her hometown in Niigata Prefecture in November 1977 at age 13.
Nishioka looked back on what he observed when news outlets reported what little was revealed by the North about the wellbeing of abductees as a result of the Koizumi visit: the North Korean leader simply told Koizumi that five abductees were alive and eight others deceased.
How scantily our media reported on the wellbeing of abductees at the time reflected the indifference to the abduction issue on the part of Tanaka, other bureaucrats, and our politicians in general. “I couldn’t believe what some of the government officials concerned were talking about,” recalled Nishioka. “If they really had been seriously trying to resolve the abduction issue, why didn’t they instantly engage in fact-checking on the morning of September 19, when a North Korean Foreign Ministry official handed them a document showing eight purportedly deceased and five alive? Accepting the North’s explanations without question, Japanese officials categorically informed members of the abductees’ families, who were anxiously awaiting news in Tokyo, that eight abductees had passed away. Among those to get this shocking news were the parents of Megumi Yokota.
I am sure many of us remember the news conference where their “deaths” were reported. Megumi’s father, Shigeru, broke down in tears. Most of the family members present looked resigned to believing what they had been told, but Megumi’s mother, Sakie, exclaimed at the top of her voice:
“I don’t believe our daughter is dead when the North Korean government cannot say when, where, or how she purportedly died! I will never believe it. I am absolutely sure our Megumi is alive in North Korea.”
Nishioka emphasized that it was Abe, then a deputy chief cabinet secretary assigned to accompany Koizumi during the Pyongyang summit, who stood on the side of the families of the abductees when it came to information regarding the life and death of their loved ones. The negotiations with the North leading to the summit were conducted by a team of bureaucrats led mainly by Tanaka, Fukuda, and Furukawa, with Abe left out in the cold most of the time. But he made a brilliant move at this juncture. Nishioka explained:
“On the morning of September 18, 2002, Abe went to talk to members of the abductees’ families, although it was not meant to be an official government briefing. ‘When did they die and what were the causes for their deaths,’ they asked Abe, who repeatedly replied that unfortunately he was not in the know. Pointing out that the Japanese government had yet to confirm their deaths, Abe told them that there was a Foreign Ministry official who was known to have met the Hasuike and Chimura couples and a young woman in Pyongyang whom the North identified as Megumi’s daughter. Abe further told them that he contacted the Foreign Ministry official and was told that he himself had not been able to confirm the alleged deaths of the abductees.”
None of the other Foreign Ministry bureaucrats involved in Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang, including Tanaka, or government leaders from Koizumi down bothered to fact-check the information provided by the North concerning the wellbeing of the Japanese abductees. In point of fact, Tanaka and the rest of his Foreign Ministry team were preoccupied with normalizing relations with the hermit kingdom. It is untrue that Tanaka and the likes of Koizumi and Fukuda strove to conclude the summit successfully by targeting the abduction issue as a top priority. Meanwhile, we now have more reliable intelligence that Megumi and other Japanese abductees are alive and well in the North.
“Abe Fought Back”
Another lie in Tanaka’s remarks concerns the debate within the government as to whether or not the five abductees, whom the North allowed to visit Japan “temporarily” on the heels of the Koizumi visit, would be sent back to North Korea as initially agreed. Tanaka said on the program it was a “political decision,” seemingly explaining that he himself did not proactively maintain that the abductees must be returned at the time. But there was clearly a conflict within the government as to what to do.
Tanaka and Fukuda asserted that they must be returned to the North on the grounds that Tokyo promised Pyongyang that they “would only stay in Japan for two weeks.” But Abe and Kyoko Nakayama, advisor to the cabinet secretariat in charge of abduction matters, adamantly maintained that they should remain in Japan for good.
“Some commentators are now making statements implying, or even saying outright, that Abe did not object to the abductees’ return to the North. That’s ridiculous. I’ve heard not only directly from Abe but from Nakayama and Shotaro Yachi (then assistant chief cabinet secretary) as well that Tanaka turned red in the face as he argued fiercely that the abductees must be returned to North.”
“Abe fought back when Fukuda said the abductees had to be returned to the North. Actually. I heard it straight from Abe by phone that he demanded that Fukuda agreed to say he would assume full responsibility in case they were returned to the North and were then unable to forever see their families in Japan again as a result.”
I believe the editors of “Today’s Close-Up” should have thoroughly fact-checked Tanaka’s remarks before airing the program. They should have investigated the disturbing blank he has left in the public record of the negotiations leading up to the Koizumi-Kim summit. (Tanaka left the Foreign Ministry in 2005.)
Tanaka is known to have failed to submit the minutes of the last two rounds of the bilateral negotiations prior to the summit. What did he discuss with his North Korean counterparts and what compromises did he possibly make in these two rounds that presumably were the climax of the secret runup to the first Japan-North Korea summit? All of this should have been made clear, but the program made no mention of these points.
What was NHK trying to accomplish by completely ignoring the contributions Abe made in moving the abduction issue forward? Over the course of many years, Abe strove tirelessly to make the international community come to grips with the truth about the abductions by the North, unswervingly focused on obtaining the release of the abductees more earnestly than any other politician in Japan. Watching “Today’s Close-Up,” I couldn’t but sadly conclude that NHK’s aim in airing this program was to demean Abe.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,019 in the October 13, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)