By Robert R. King
On September 16, 2019, in Tokyo, a thousand people gathered in a large-scale public meeting to mark the 17th anniversary of the first visit of then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to North Korea in 2002 for meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Koizumi followed that first visit with a second two years later on May 22, 2004. These were the first meetings by a Japanese prime minister and the leader of North Korea.
These meetings are remembered not so much because they brought about a shift in the relationship between the North Korea and Japan, but because the North Koreans publicly admitted they had previously abducted Japanese citizens and they took the first steps toward making amends. In retrospect the improvement in relations proved to be short lived.
The rally this week was held to remember that visit because during the leaders’ meeting, Kim Jong-il acknowledged the abduction of a number of Japanese citizens by North Korean operatives. He made a verbal apology but blamed “some people” who wanted to show “heroism and adventurism” and refused to admit official responsibility. The North gave Japanese officials recently issued death certificates for eight of the individuals it admitted had been abducted, and five individuals were permitted to return to Japan. (For details on the Japanese citizens that are known to have been abducted by the North Koreans, see the Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, paragraphs 933-962.) On that occasion The Japanese Prime Minister apologized for the pre-World War II Japanese occupation and exploitation of Korea, and offered Japanese assistance to the North. This exchange and assistance was consistent with actions of the United States and South Korea at that time.
A month after the first Koizumi-Kim summit, five Japanese abductees were permitted to return to Japan for a “visit,” but North Korea made clear the abductees were expected to return. In fact, five children of two Japanese couples who returned were required to remain in the North. The “visitors” chose to remain in Japan and did not return to North Korea, and Japanese popular sentiment completely supported their decision. The children who had remained in Japan were eventually permitted to rejoin their parents in Japan over two years later following the second Koizumi visit to Pyongyang.
The meeting in Tokyo on June 16 commemorating the 19th anniversary of the first Koizumi visit to Pyongyang was a major event. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe participated, expressing regret that Japan has been unable to bring all those individuals abducted by North Korea back to their homeland and secure an honest accounting of all those who were kidnapped. The eighty-one year old brother of one of the abductees, who is also leader of a group of abductee families, urged additional effort because of the age of the victims and their family members. The event was given wide media coverage in Japan.
The Scope of the Abductee Issue
The time period when North Korea abducted Japanese citizens was about 1977 through about 1983. Subsequently, the Japanese government identified 17 of its citizens as definitely having been abducted by North Korea. In 2002, the North admitted it had abducted 13 of the 17 individuals, but said that 8 of these had died. The 5 individuals still living returned to Japan following the 2002 summit in Pyongyang. The North Koreans, however, have been unwilling to discuss and resolve this issue with the Japanese since the initial brief discussion on the issue in 2002 and 2004.
The Japanese government has a list of some 880 individuals who might have been abducted by North Korea during that same time period. Since the North has been uncooperative, however, it has been difficult for Japanese officials to confirm whether these persons were indeed abducted by North Korea. When individuals disappear without a trace, it is easy simply to place them on the list of individuals abducted by North Korea. Periodically, however, some of these possible abductees reappear without ever having been kidnapped by North Korea and with alternative histories for their disappearance.
A few days before the recent commemorative rally, Kaoru Hasuiki, one of the abductees who returned to Japan from North Korea with his wife in 2002, told the Washington Post and Deutsche Welle how he and his fiancé were abducted and what happened to them in North Korea. The engaged young couple were walking along a beach near their homes in Western Japan and sat together to watch the sunset. In the darkness, North Korean special operations thugs overpowered them there on the beach and took them to a waiting boat which transported them to North Korea.
Mr. Hasuiki gave a description of his and his wife’s experiences in North Korea, which gives some indication of why this dreadful policy was followed by the North. The abductions were initially carried out in an effort to indoctrinate the abductees to return to Japan as spies for North Korea. Following the escape of two “trained” abductees in Europe, however, the North abandoned the effort to indoctrinate abductees as spies. Hasuiki and his wife were then forced to teach Japanese language and customs to help North Korean espionage agents blend in and function as Japanese. That effort, too, was eventually abandoned. Mr. Hasuiki reported that he and his wife spent the last years of their two-and-a-half decades of captivity doing translations from Japanese.
The Role of Abductions in North Korea-Japan Relations
The question of Japanese abductions has been a critical issue in relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang. Japan has repeatedly called for additional information and full accountability for the specific 17 abductees that it has identified, as well as information North Korea may have on the other missing Japanese whose fate is unknown. This is an issue that the government raises publicly and privately with North Korea at every opportunity. The issue always receives high level government attention. The Japanese government has a Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue, and the Headquarters for the Abduction Issue is a special cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister with the Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue, the Chief Cabinet Secretary, and the Foreign Minister serving as vice chairs.
This official attention to abductions reflects the popular Japanese interest in the issue. When I visited Japan as the U.S. Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights, I received enormous press attention when I met with the Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue or with family members of the abductees. When I met with the Foreign Minister or other senior Japanese government officials, there was far less media interest and attention. This is clearly an issue of great importance to the Japanese people, and as a result it gets considerable attention and focus in any effort to deal with North Korea.
Few signs have appeared recently to indicate that North Korea is interested in improving its relationship with Japan, even as North–South relations and North Korea–United States relations have been boosted by a number of summits. Though meaningful progress in relations with Pyongyang has been slim in the cases of both Seoul and Washington, the diplomatic activity has generated a good deal of attention.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown his interest in meeting with Kim Jong-un, but the North Korean leader has not been particularly responsive to the outreach from Tokyo. Last June there was talk in Japan of Abe visiting Pyongyang in August or the two leaders meeting privately in September at a multilateral conference in Russia. There were press reports that Japanese and North Korean foreign ministry officials met privately during a multilateral diplomatic conference in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar. This was six months after numerous reports of secret meetings on this issue, also in Mongolia, between senior Japanese and North Korean intelligence officials.
In May Prime Minister Abe publicly suggested a meeting without preconditions with Kim Jong-un, but the North Korean leader was not interested in a meeting with the Japanese leader. In early June 2019 Pyongyang media, obviously acting under official direction, issued not just a “No” to negotiations with Tokyo but a “Hell, No!” including a vicious attack on Japan’s foreign minister:
“It is useless to cry out for the improvement of relations unless Japan gives up its wicked character,” the North Korean spokesperson said. “Even though there is no able man in Japan, it is pitiful that such a poor-grade being as weasel-faced [Foreign Minister Taro] Kono who always makes hare-brained and loathsome words serves as foreign minister.
“Abe tenaciously knocks the door of Pyongyang while making an advertisement as if the Japanese government’s policy for negotiation with the DPRK was changed but there is nothing changed in its hostile policy towards the DPRK,” the spokesperson said, adding that Kono had called for the tightening of sanctions on the North “at his master’s beck and call.”
The Japanese have met with the North Koreans to discuss the abductee issue on a few occasions since Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang in 2002. These meetings have occurred when the North Koreans were willing to talk and usually when there was an interest in securing Japanese economic assistance. Little has come out of those efforts to deal with abductions, however.
United States Support for Japan on Abductions
The U.S. government has been supportive of Japanese efforts to secure the release of its abducted citizens, and U.S. diplomats have raised the issue with North Korea and discussed the topic with other governments at the request of the Japanese government. This support began in the 1990s as efforts were made to make progress on North Korea denuclearization, and it has continued since that time.
More recently, the Japanese have received assistance from the Trump administration in urging the release of the abductees. In his first speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, President Trump was harshly critical of North Korea, including its human rights record. He mentioned the best-known Japanese abductee, Megumi Yokota, in a catalog of human rights abuses by the North Korean government: “We know North Korea kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies.” The Yokota family were surprised and pleased when Trump raised the issue. This public human rights criticism of the North by President Trump, which began in earnest with his first UN speech, continued for several months until March 2018 when Trump and Kim Jong-un agreed to meet in Singapore. From that point on, U.S. criticism of North Korea human rights has been muted.
Trump met with family members of the abductees on a visit to Japan in November 2017, and he pledged to work with Prime Minister Abe to secure their return. According to a senior official of the White House National Security Council staff, Trump raised the abduction issue in Hanoi in February of this year with Kim Jong-un. During the president’s visit to Tokyo this past May, he met a second time with families of the abductees and assured them of his support for the efforts of the Japanese government.
The abduction issue remains an important one for the Japanese people and their government. North Korea has publicly shown that it has little concern for human rights, and Pyongyang has cynically used abductions when they have seen benefit in doing so. Thus far, there has been only limited interest in the North in seeking an improvement in relations with Tokyo. It is clear, however, that the abduction issue is one on which Kim Jong-un will have to show progress to move forward with the Japanese.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo of President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo meeting with Japanese abductee families from the Government of Japan on WikiMedia Commons.