TIME IS RIPE FOR MAXIMUM EFFORTS TO RESOLVE ABDUCTION ISSUE
Some 800 people attended an annual convention in Tokyo on October 23 to pledge renewed maximum efforts to obtain an early release of Japanese abducted by North Korea. The annual gathering was attended by representatives from five organizations, including the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN); the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN); and the All-Japan Governors’ Association to Obtain Release of Japanese Abductees in North Korea. It has been 20 years since Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea for a summit with his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il; 25 years since the AFVKN released the abductees’ names in developing a campaign to obtain their release; and 45 years since Megumi Yokota, then 13, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in her hometown in Niigata Prefecture. She is 58 years old by now, reportedly alive and well in Pyongyang.
At the outset of the gathering at Sabo Center in central Tokyo, the attendees observed a moment of silence for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was gunned down during a campaign speech in Nara, western Japan, on July 8. Megumi’s mother Sakie (86) reminisced:
“No Japanese politicians worked harder than Prime Minister Abe to significantly move the abduction issue forward. He painstakingly talked to people around the world about the abduction issue, sometimes traveling as far as Africa, never failing to tirelessly enlighten world leaders who had little knowledge of the issue, convincing them to impose UN economic sanctions on North Korea. Mr. Abe was always cheerful and thoughtful no matter how tough the going was for him. But he is no longer with us. When I heard the news of his assassination, I was completely devasted and wept aloud, unable to come to grips with why such an exceptional person was taken from us far too soon. But I decided not to talk about him when I was asked to address the gathering today, because I was sure I would choke up with tears, unable to speak. So, I talked instead about how North Korea’s leaders have thrown so many of us into this cruel fate by abducting our loved ones.”
Following the silent prayer, Sakie talked about the shock, grief, and desperation of a mother whose daughter vanished into thin air. Twenty years after her daughter’s sudden disappearance, Sakie was to learn abruptly one day that Megumi was alive in North Korea. She was simply overjoyed and expected rather naively that she would finally soon be able to see her daughter now that her whereabouts were known. But a quarter century has passed since Koizumi made his visit to North Korea and five abductees were released, including Hitomi Soga and Kaoru Hasuike. But that was 20 years ago. Remarked Sakie:
“Many aged in-laws of the abductees have passed away:Mrs. Kayoko Arimoto (mother of Keiko Arimoto) in February two years ago; Megumi’s father and my husband Shigeru in June of the same year; and Shigeo Iizuka (elder brother of Yaeko Taguchi and former head of the NARKN) last December. I am also getting on in years. My joints hurt all over my body and I don’t have much appetite lately. Many family members basically feel the same way. I am very disappointed that the abduction issue has remained unresolved over such a long period of time. The government and the people of Japan have been doing their utmost to back us, and yet still… I honestly am beyond exhausted.”
American “Decapitation Operation”
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who just returned from an official overnight visit to Perth, Australia, attended the Sunday gathering. He vowed to do his best to settle the abduction issue as he read a prepared statement slowly, obviously looking tired from the hasty trip.
In past gatherings, members of the AFVKN customarily talked about the memories of the abductees, but this year its president Tsutomu Nishioka, an expert on the Korean Peninsula, delivered a status report instead. Looking back over the past quarter century of his association’s activities, Nishioka told his audience that, although he fully understands everyone involved is “exhausted,” now is the time to “band together afresh and put our maximum effort” to realize the coveted release of the abductees. Below is the gist of Nishioka’s report:
Twenty years ago, the AFVKN scored its first ‘victory’ against North Korea by obtaining the release of five abductees five years after founding the association, with all its members playing their part in increasing the public awareness of the abduction issue. There were a host of things Kim Jong-il wanted to get from Japan then. And he began to realize that, in order to get them, he must admit that North Korea had indeed abducted Japanese citizens. As it turned out, Kim made the admission and apologized to Koizumi in September 2002.
But Jong-il lied to Koizumi at the time—that North Korea had abducted only a total of 13 Japanese, of whom eight had died and the remaining five would be returned. With that, Kim intended to settle the matter once and for all, but his lie was quickly exposed. And yet the North remained bullish, with Kim’s son Jong-un launching 40 missiles in 2016-17 and conducting nuclear tests three times (between January 2016 and September 2017).
Donald Trump exerted pressure on Kim when he became President in 2017. On September 23 the following year, two Stealth B-1B bombers, each capable of carrying 60 tons of bombs, were sent over Wonsan, southeastern North Korea. Lacking sufficiently sophisticated radar, their flights were undetected by the North Koreans. It was then that Kim genuinely started feeling imperiled by a potential American ‘decapitation operation.’ Trump’s pressure worked.
From then on, Kim suspended all nuclear and missile tests, agreeing to a summit with Trump in Singapore in June, 2018. Kim agreed on another summit six months later, in February 2019—this time in Vietnam. During a tête-à-tête in Hanoi, Trump conveyed to Kim Prime Minister Abe’s strong wish to resolve the abduction issue.
A national leader ordinarily is expected to bring up high-priority issues for his own country in an intimate meeting like this. It is extremely unusual to use such an occasion to communicate the concerns of another country. Trump went out of his way to do so on behalf of Abe.
Kim reportedly was flustered by what Trump had to say and moved away from the subject. But Trump remained persistent. Following a dinner that evening, the two leaders had another tête-à-tête the next morning, when Trump again broached the subject. He told Kim that Shinzo Abe, whom he highly trusted, talked about nothing beyond wanting to resolve the abduction issue. Trump reminded Kim that a bright future would await North Korea if the abduction, missile, and nuclear issues were settled. But Trump stressed that America would not aid North Korea. Japan would, but Kim must first release all the abductees. Japan then would readily provide the necessary assistance. Resolving the issue would be good for Kim, too, Trump reminded him.
“Full-Fledged Psychological Warfare”
Apparently realizing the gravity of Trump’s message, Jong-un gave him a meaningful response this time indicating he would release the abductees, noted Nishioka. I also personally heard it straight from Abe. That was the moment when a possible resolution of the abduction issue looked closer to reality than ever. But Jong-un lied again, this time plotting to cheat the US over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, uranium enrichment, and missile development. But he couldn’t fool John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, who accompanied him to his summits with Kim. The US-North Korea summit broke down then and there, with a possible resolution of the abduction issue becoming helplessly distant.
“At this juncture, we are faced with a similar situation,” Nishioka observed, explaining:
“Jong-un has launched missiles 48 times so far this year. There’s no way the US will tolerate such behavior. As a matter of fact, the US has recently conducted large-scale joint military drills with South Korea off the Korean Peninsula with special forces from both nations participating. These were combat-like exercises in preparation for a possible ‘decapitation operation’ targeting Jong-un. The US side has posted the video of the drills on Facebook. This is full-fledged psychological warfare.”
It is time to demonstrate America’s real military capability and Japan’s financial strength to Kim. Subject to heavy UN-led sanctions, North Korea already has fallen into a serious food crisis. Even its military is in deep trouble, and there have been several failed attempts on Kim’ life.
Kim is said to be terrified of an American “decapitation operation” and the resentment of the North Korean people. The important thing he will have to realize sooner than later is that in order to survive he will need to provide his people food and put factories back in action to allow them to eat to live. What will happen if North Korea settles the abduction issue before compromising on the missile and nuclear issues? With funds available from Japan, economic recovery would enable North Korean society to secure reasonable stability, preventing it from being dragged deeper into Chinese and Russian control.
At a time when Kim is obviously scared of overwhelming US military power and an uprising by his own people, it is crucial for the US and Japan to continue working closely together to figure out a peaceful “off ramp” for North Korea. It is high time for everybody in Japan, including the government, organizations committed to a safe return of the abductees, and like-minded citizens, to do our very best to keep up the pressure on the North. Nishioka emphasized the importance of continuing to remind North Korea that it will not get a penny from Japan unless all Japanese abductees are returned home safely. At this point we must renew our resolve to aim for their release without ever giving up hope.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,022 in the November 3, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)