How Japan’s right used a tragedy to kill ties with N Korea

For 20 years, the abductee issue has been politically abused, with disastrous results for regional diplomacy and security

Tensions are on a high simmer in Northeast Asia as North Korea presses ahead with missile tests. During his recent visit to Tokyo, US President Joe Biden joined the chorus of those demanding that Pyongyang cease nuclear missile development. 

Remarkably, there exists a formal declaration, signed by Pyongyang and Tokyo, that calls for a moratorium on missile testing and a whole lot more: economic aid, normalization of relations, and diplomatic cooperation in Northeast Asia.  

However, that document, the Pyongyang Declaration of 2002, is virtually unknown today. 

Given that it promised an end to the Cold War in Northeast Asia and provided a blueprint for peaceful Japanese-North Korean relations, its disappearance from the regional agenda is one of the great mysteries of Asian diplomacy.

It is also one of the most tragic. Millions in North Korea suffer under an aberrant regime, and have been denied the normalcy and economic progress that the declaration, had it been carried out, promised. 

What went wrong? 

The promise of 2002

In the 1990s, Tokyo finally decided officially to check out rumors that Japanese citizens had been abducted by thuggish North Korean operatives in the 1970s and ’80s.

Through prolonged talks, Japan’s lead negotiator, the senior Foreign Ministry official Tanaka Hitoshi, persuaded the regime of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to admit to the abductions.  

But Kim not only apologized for what had happened, he said the operatives who carried out the abductions, apparently to serve as language and cultural instructions in Pyongyang spy schools, had been out of control and would be punished. 

And while eight of the 13 Japanese said to have been abducted had died, Kim was willing to allow the five survivors to go to Japan and visit their families – provided they could subsequently return to their families or spouses in North Korea.

It was agreed that then-Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi would visit North Korea in 2002 to confirm the abductee visits to Japan and to sign the hugely promising Pyongyang Declaration.

But not all on the Japanese side were overjoyed at the prospect of normalized relations with North Korea.

Shooting it down

The antis included a leading Japanese hawk: an ambitious and capable deputy cabinet secretary named Shinzo Abe.

Abe joined Koizumi on the landmark 2002 visit and the Pyongyang Declaration was duly signed. But the ink was hardly dry when Abe started to raise objections. 

He had information that North Korea had taken many more abductees – maybe as many as 800. There would have to be a much more thorough investigation.

Moreover, he asserted, the idea that the five abductees would return to Japan for visits was ridiculous. Once in Japan they would stay. And their families left behind in North Korea would have to follow them.

Remarkably, Pyongyang went along with each twist and turn in Japanese policy, to the point where Koizumi returned to Pyongyang in 2004 to collect the abductee families and reaffirm the Pyongyang Declaration.

But Japan’s position continued to harden. With Abe’s backing, a nationwide organization demanding the return of all claimed abductees – 800 or more – was formed. 

Tokyo put forth an official claim: North Korea had definitely seized at least 17 abductees (with many more possibles) and it wanted full details about the people said to have died.

In particular Tokyo wanted details about the especially heartbreaking case of a schoolgirl, Megumi Yokota, aged 13. She had indeed been abducted from a beach in western Japan, Pyongyang confessed, but had later died in North Korea. 

Haunting pictures of the young girl and of her grieving parents soon came to represent the tragedy of the abduction issue.

In a bid to put an end to rumors surrounding Megumi and another deceased abductee, Pyongyang rather clumsily provided bones said to have been recovered from their cremations.

However, Abe shot back, producing an amateur bone-testing expert who said his DNA tests of the bones proved that the North Korean claims were false. 

That led a top UK scientific magazine, Nature, to declare that DNA testing of contaminated charred bones was impossible. (I personally got the same answer from the head of Tokyo’s Kazusa DNA Research Center at the time.) 

In a strongly worded editorial, Nature claimed: “Japan is right to doubt North Korea’s every statement. But its interpretation of the DNA tests has crossed the boundary of science’s freedom from political interference. This suggestion is uncomfortable for a Japanese government that wants to have North Korea seen as unambiguously fraudulent.”

Yet Tokyo persisted in its claim.

The bone tester was moved to a position where he could not be questioned further. More abductee questions have been allowed to poison relations with North Korea ever since.

Now, no Japanese prime minister can ignore the abductees. Abe, of course, would go on to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister and retains behind-the-scenes power within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to this day.

Megumi’s ongoing tragedy

The highest-profile victim continues to be Megumi Yokota.

In the wake of the bones brouhaha, sources appeared claiming that Megumi had been married to a second-generation Korean-Japanese in North Korea, but committed suicide in 1994 after giving birth to a daughter, Kim Eun Gyong.

In 2014, Megumi Yokota’s parents were finally allowed to meet Megumi’s daughter, provided the visit was in a third country, Mongolia. 

Surprisingly, reports of the visit made no mention of Megumi. When the parents returned to Japan, I had the chance to speak directly to Megumi’s mother, Sakie, and ask why there had been mention fn Megumi. 

She replied with some dignity that she now saw her role as supporting the parents of other abductees.

Megumi has now become a symbol that is wielded at the highest level of politics. 

Her parents have been taken to the US to meet American presidents. Biden was asked to pay his respects to a Megumi photo shrine during his recent visit to Japan. 

That was followed by the annual meeting of the powerful “Association of Abductees’ Families” that is funded by Tokyo. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for continued harsh measures against Pyongyang.

Troublingly, vindictiveness is at play in the way with which the authorities prevent any criticism of the abductee saga.

Questioners quelled

In 2009, one of Japan’s most respected investigative journalists, Tahara Soichiro, revealed on Asahi TV that a Foreign Ministry source had confirmed to him that Yokota and one other much publicized abductee had indeed died – just as Pyongyang had been insisting. 

He was swiftly hit with a claim for large emotional-distress damages from the relative of an alleged abductee. The legal case was supported by one of the well-endowed right-wing groups pushing the abductee rescue cause.

No one came to Tahara’s defense. After pleading guilty and paying a nominal fine, he has since gone into complete silence on the abductee issue.

The issue crosses political lines.

A member of Japan’s main opposition party, Yukio Ubakata, was forced to apologize for saying during a question-and-answer session in September 2021 that Megumi was no longer alive.

According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the families of two abductees’ groups, the Kazoku-kai and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, condemned his remark as a “grave insult” and “disrespectful” to abductees and their families. 

In retracting his statement Ubakata tweeted: “I made an inappropriate comment. In addition to retracting it, I would like to apologize to the families of abduction victims as well as related parties.”

The groups also asked his party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, to act. The CDP released a statement saying: “Representative Ubukata’s comment conflicts with the party’s standing. The comment was hurtful to abduction victims and their family members, and we have strongly reprimanded him over the matter.”

Tahara and Ubakata are not the only victims of such behavior. In 2018, on a US blog, I happened to mention the Megumi affair as an example of Tokyo’s mendacity in the abductee affair. 

The right-wing, mass-circulation Sankei Shimbun newspaper got hold of the mention and devoted much of its front page to condemning both me and the blog as anti-Japan holdouts.  

Immediately many of my Japan connections, including a position as outside director of Mitsui and Company, were cut.  

One can understand Japan’s continuing distress over the abductions of its citizens. But the way the issue has been utilized for political ends goes beyond the bounds of common sense – indeed, with each year, the situation becomes more ridiculous.

More broadly, the hugely promising Pyongyang Declaration has been allowed to lapse in its entirety.  

This raises an obvious but important question. Could any alleged surviving abductees – who would now be in their 70s and 80s – possibly be of more value to North Korea than the many promises that are explicit in the Pyongyang Declaration?