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Japan’s dangerous demonisation of North Korea

Japan is a member of the Quad – the grouping that claims it is working for a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. But in its relations with North Korea, Tokyo is not working for anything free, open, prosperous and inclusive.

Former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, created a bizarre abductee issue to derail chances of improved relations. Hopes that Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, might moderate the anti-Pyongyang hardline policy he inherited from his assassinated predecessor, can now be abandoned.

Kishida has placed that bizarre abductee issue front and centre of his policy to Pyongyang and is now even calling for school children throughout the nation to be involved in a ‘summit’ to discuss the issue. Tokyo has also used the issue effectively to renege on a 2002 treaty which would have dragged North Korea out of poverty, and which would have made a reclusive Pyongyang a member of a free and open north-east Asian society.

Is this really a qualification for being a Quad member?

The story begins with a progressive, highly-placed Japanese Foreign Ministry official (yes, they do exist) Hitoshi Tanaka who devoted the entire year of 2001 in secret negotiations with a mysterious high-placed North Korean official known only as Mister X for the release of Japanese civilians abducted by North Korea during its period of political madness in the late seventies and early eighties. Pyongyang had strongly denied rumours of the abductions. Tanaka knew they had occurred and was determined to gain their release.

He succeeded, far beyond expectations, largely because the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il – ritually denounced in the West as a cruel dictator – was also a closet progressive anxious to see his country emerge from isolation.

He not only admitted the abductions had occurred and that five had survived. He apologised, and blamed out of control apparatchiks who would be punished.

Even more surprisingly, the text of this apology was published for the entire North Korean population to read, together with an ambitious Pyongyang Declaration in which North Korea promised a moratorium on testing of nuclear rockets and Japan promised a much sought normalisation of relations, extensive economic aid (estimated by North Korean sources to be worth at least 100 million US dollars) plus cooperation with Pyongyang in north-east Asia diplomacy.

The Declaration would be signed in Pyongyang by then Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, in 2002 who would return to Japan with a promise for the return of the five surviving abductees.

On the face of things it should have been the beginning of a very welcome opening of relations with North Korea. But included in the delegation accompanying Koizumi was a die-hard conservative, Shinzo Abe, then deputy cabinet secretary.

Abe returned to Japan saying he believed North Korea was hiding as many as 800 or more Japanese it had abducted. Pyongyang had to account for these people also before relations could improve.

But Japan officially had listed only seventeen known abductions. Pyongyang said four on Tokyo’s list had never entered North Korea, seven had died from illnesses or accidents, and one – Megumi Yokota abducted at age 13 (presumably because she had seen another attempted abduction) had committed suicide in 1994 after marrying and giving birth to a daughter. After much wrangling and broken Tokyo promises the five survivors with their families had been returned to Japan.

With Abe at the helm Tokyo began to make an issue of the missing twelve on its list. It had reports that, contrary to Pyongyang claims, Megumi Yokota was still alive. A nationwide campaign was launched for her return, focussing on the grief of her distressed parents. Together with a Megumi photo and other memorabilia they were given national and international exposure in a bid to prove continued North Korean abductee mendacity.

Since the twelve abductees that North Korea was alleged to be hiding included two who today would be in their eighties and others of no possible use to any North Korean regime it would be hard to explain why Pyongyang would forego massive economic aid and normalised relations just to hold on to these people. But no matter. The Megumi myth had been created (this is a nation which a generation or two earlier believed it was divine and its emperor was a god). It had to be sustained.

The man who had negotiated the abductee return agreement, Hitoshi Tanaka, had his house threatened by rightwing firebombing attacks; he allegedly had disgraced the Japanese nation by not negotiating for the missing 800 or more. He has since retired from the Foreign Ministry.

A respected political commentator and an opposition politician who both had revealed Foreign Ministry leaks that Megumi had in fact died as Pyongyang had claimed were forced into humiliating retractions, apologies and a court fine for causing distress by the rightwing abductee-rescue organisations established and supported by Shinzo Abe’s government.

When Tokyo finally in 2014 allowed the Megumi parents to visit Megumi’s daughter in a third nation (Mongolia) no one seems to have dared to ask publicly why the reports on the visit made no mention of Megumi. (I had the chance to ask Megumi’s mother, Sakie, just that question. She evaded an answer.)

And so the show continues. Japan’s once active progressives will continue to lose ground to Abe Shinzo’s conservative successors still flogging the abductee issue. Japan, South Korea and the US are now in formal discussions on how to deal with North Korea; reports say they aim to use an alleged North Korea threat as a stepping stone for a more vigorous anti-China campaign.

And the 26 million people in North Korea will continue not to be free, open, prosperous and included just so that our Quad partner can continue its dangerous demonisation of Pyongyang.