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The Peninsula

Increased Attention on Japanese Citizens Abducted by North Korea

Published May 7, 2024
Author: Robert King
Category: Japan

The blatant abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea around 40 years ago continues to be a sensitive and controversial issue for the Japanese government and the Japanese people, as well as a serious obstacle to improved relations between Pyongyang and Tokyo. From about 1977 to 1983, North Korean military and intelligence operatives kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens from Japan.

The abduction issue continues to be an important and sensitive topic for the Japanese government, and the North Korean government has been concerned about the damage to its international standing from Japan’s claims. While some of the Japanese citizens who were said to have been abducted were individuals who disappeared for other reasons, the North Korean government did admit that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens. Five citizens who were kidnapped and held in North Korea were permitted to return to Japan in 2002 after a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro to Pyongyang for meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

The release in 2002 of the five Japanese citizens was enthusiastically welcomed by Japan, but the goodwill was short-lived. Japanese and North Korean officials continued working-level discussions, and three more abductees were returned in July 2004. North Korean officials told Japanese representatives that among the specific individuals identified by the Japanese government as having been abducted, five were not found by North Korea, eight had died, and two never entered North Korea. Between 2002 and 2014, the two countries held over a dozen working-level meetings on abductees, which the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has carefully documented. However, the meetings achieved limited results.

In January 2016, Pyongyang conducted another nuclear weapons test and announced it had launched a satellite, both of which violated existing UN Security Council resolutions that imposed sanctions against North Korea. Japan, which supported the UN resolution, imposed additional unilateral sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang responded by dissolving the “Special Investigating Committee,” which had been set up by Japan and North Korea to deal with the Japanese abductee issue.

In 2018 and 2019, Japan requested that the abduction issue be raised by US President Donald Trump in his meetings with Kim Jong-un in June 2018 and February 2019. Trump emphatically affirmed to Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo that he would raise the issue with Kim in Hanoi. President Trump said after the meeting’s conclusion that he had raised the issue with the North Korean leader. In view of the very public failure of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, however, it is unlikely that the topic was a high-priority issue.

Abductions Continue to Receive Attention in Japan

High-profile attention on the abductee issue continues with the current Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. His government has issued public calls for North Korea to deal with the unresolved cases of abducted Japanese citizens. While North Korean officials had permitted a small number of individuals to return to Japan in 2002 and 2004, the Japanese government saw this as the beginning of a much more extensive effort that would lead to the return of a larger number of Japanese abductees. The North Korean government, however, saw their action in 2002 and 2004 as the final steps and has called on the Japanese government to recognize that reality.

Japanese officials have sought and received US help in attempting to resolve this issue. As noted above, the Japanese government asked President Trump to raise the issue of Japanese abductees in his summit meetings with Kim Jong-un in 2018 and 2019, to which Trump emphatically affirmed that he had raised the issue with Kim.

When US President Joe Biden made his first presidential visit to Tokyo in May 2022, he met with the families of Japanese abductees. On that occasion, he called on North Korea “to right this historic wrong and provide a full accounting of the Japanese nationals who remain missing.” The head of the abductee family organization said after that meeting, “I was encouraged by [Biden’s] expression of his unwavering support.”

In April 2024, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield made an official visit to South Korea and Japan. While in Tokyo, she met with family members of individuals who were abducted. She reaffirmed that the United States “stands with all the families, with all of Japan and with the international community in pressing for a resolution that will allow all families separated by the [North Korean] regime’s policies to be reunited.”

The first week of May 2024 has seen another outpouring of interest in the Japanese abduction cases. Family members of the Japanese abductee are in the United States holding press events and meeting with a number of US government officials. With Yokota Sakie turning 87 in June, her son Yokota Takuya is now the head of the Japanese National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea. He is heading the delegation composed of other individuals whose family members were also abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983. Association members are accompanied by Japanese legislators and members of the media during their visit to the United States.

One question of concern was raised by Yokota Takuya as the delegation was preparing to leave Tokyo. He hoped that the United States would understand his group’s thinking and not oppose the Japanese government’s offer to provide humanitarian support to North Korea if North Korea returned all Japanese abductees. In Washington, the group reportedly received assurances from senior US government officials who met with the Japanese delegation that humanitarian aid from Japan to North Korea could proceed if Japanese abductees were released.

Generational Leadership Change in the Japanese Abductee Organization

One reason for the recent increase in attention to the Japanese abductee issue is that the organization established to support victims of North Korean abductions is undergoing a generational shift in leadership. The Japanese National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea was legally established in 1997 and led by the Yokota family. Yokota Megumi was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977 when she was 13 years old. She was returning to her home of Niigata, a Japanese port city on the west coast of the country, when North Korean agents surreptitiously took her and carried her back to North Korea. The Yokota family had no idea where, why, and how she was taken. As information became available over time, Yokota Megumi became the poster child of the abductions carried out by North Korea.

Megumi’s parents and twin brothers, who are a few years younger than Megumi, were instrumental in creating the abductee organization once the fate of Megumi emerged. The family has remained at the forefront of the effort to return abductees. Megumi’s father, Yokota Shigeru (1932-2020), was the first leader of the association. He was a gentle man but determined to see the abductions resolved and his daughter returned to Japan. An indication of the importance in Japan of the abductees is the fact that Prime Minister Abe attended Yokota Shigeru’s funeral in 2020. Shigeru’s wife, Yokota Sakie (born 1936), succeeded him briefly in leading the association, and she has published a book about her abducted daughter. The current leader of the abductee association is the elder of the Yokota twin sons, Yokota Takuya.

In 2002, Yokota Megumi was one of the individuals acknowledged by the North Korean government as having been abducted. The North Korean government, however, told Japanese officials that she had married a South Korean individual who resettled in North Korea and that the couple had a daughter. Megumi reportedly committed suicide after giving birth. By the 2010s, Yokota’s granddaughter was married and had a daughter of her own. Yokota Shigeru and Yokota Sakie were permitted to meet and spend time with their granddaughter and great-granddaughter in Mongolia in 2014. As US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues during this time, I met with the Yokota family shortly after they met their granddaughter and great-granddaughter. They were delighted to see their granddaughter, and they did not seem to have any doubts that she was their grandchild. They were also pleased to know about a great-granddaughter. However, they were convinced that their daughter was still alive and was not permitted to meet with them by the North Korean government.

Yokota Shigeru made a public statement in 2002 after North Korean officials admitted that rogue officials abducted several Japanese citizens and named some of the abducted victims, including Yokota Megumi. The family, however, refused to believe that their daughter was dead. As Shigeru said at the press conference after North Korea confirmed his daughter’s abduction and death, “North Korea has insisted up until now that there had been no abductions. So, I can’t believe them.” Yokota Sakie still firmly believes that her daughter is alive.

North Korean government officials have shown little indication of willingness to negotiate the return of the missing family members. The last discussion took place more than six years ago, and North Korea has shown little, if any, interest in resolving the situation. However, it appears that this issue is not one that is going to die out with the passing of the older generation. A second generation is assuming leadership on this issue, and the claims and counterclaims by Japan and North Korea appear to be continuing. The Japanese government has supported claims in favor of the abductees, and this is also likely to keep the issue alive.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). He is former US Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues (2009-2017). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Featured Image: U.S. President Joe Biden on his last visit to Tokyo meets with leaders of the organization for the return of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Photo from the Japanese Prime Minister’s Office on Wikimedia Commons.

KEI is registered under the FARA as an agent of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, a public corporation established by the government of the Republic of Korea. Additional information is available at the Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

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