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Japan is furious with North Korea for kidnapping its people. However, the quantity of kidnappings has been far higher in South Korea, yet the issue has been largely sidelined. The issue is complicated in South Korea as there are two seemingly different sort of abductions.

During the Korean war, some 7,000 civilians were abducted by the North. [1] This was a period of active civil war. The abductions cases are labelled as ‘displaced civilians’, and they are still unresolved. They are of a different character to North Korea’s later abductions.

These later abductions are similar in character to those of Japan. Some 486 are suspected to have been kidnapped. [2] Two famous cases are noteworthy. South Korean actress Choe Eun-hui was taken to North Korea because Kim Jong-il wished to make movies with her. Soon after her film director husband, Shin Sang-ok, was taken as he searched for his wife. [3] The second prominent case, that of Kim Young-nam, is one that only arose during investigations into the Japanese abductee, Megumi Yokota. It was revealed that they were married. He was reunited with his family in June 2006. The reunion was presented as North/South reconcilation, North Korea careful not to bring too much attention to the abduction issue for fear of uniting Japanese and South Korean opinion. [4]

Efforts towards resolving the South Korean abduction issue are still half-hearted. They have been “left on the backburner” as Rhee In-je of the United Liberal Democrats party once said. [5] The reason is undoubtedly the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’, the initative of former President Kim Dae-jung (incidently the victim of a kidnapping by his own country). [6] The abduction issue for the South Korean government is being handled in the context of reunification and the reuniting of divided families. In many ways it is a more rational policy than that of Japan, both of whom are threatened by North Korea.

Perhaps it is the overwhelming threat the North poses that has meant leaving the abduction issue alone, after all, Seoul is within artillery range of North Korea. The issue certainly is not benefiting from the state of South Korean-Japanese relations, and certainly not from President Roh Moo-hyun. That said, there is something to be learnt from South Korea’s approach. Japan’s anger at North Korea is being recognised as counter-productive, only making North Korea more stubborn on the nuclear issue. [7, 8, 9] Japan might wish to take a step back to appreciate this.

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2 Comments

  1. Well, there are plenty of folks (including those at a recent Amnesty International symposium in Osaka) who say that Japan should be using the Six Party Talks as a forum to discuss the abductions issue. I happen to disagree; I think the Six Party Talks should be about stabilizing the peninsula through coming to a solution on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities (which is what they were set up to do). This is why the DPRK continues to announce that Japan is unfit to sit at the table.

    I’d like to see Japan take this on in a bilateral fashion. Mr Sasae, Japan’s negotiator, continues to say that Japan is offering bilateral talks but the DPRK won’t go for it. I cannot vouch for the veracity of his statements, but I’d hardly be surprised if they are true.

    Japan did not make any headway on the issue at the last meeting and we’ll see how it goes next month. The Abe administration has certainly not been bringing the abduction issue up publicly, and there are still no domestic voices calling his administration a failure on the issue (with 25% of Japanese believing that the DPRK will fail due to internal collapse in the coming year).

  2. Ken,

    I have to say I’m honoured to receive a comment by you. I love TPR!

    I couldn’t agree more about the abduction issue’s role in the Six Party Talks. Indeed it was Gerald Curtis’ comments (at the Korea Society, widely reported by Kyodo clients) that focused my dissertation onto the abduction issue. He stated that by taking a hard-line on the abduction issue, Japan was marginalising its role in the Six Party Talks.

    Like you, I believe that the abduction issue is/should be beyond the scope of the talks. I also agree wholeheartedly that it should be engaged bilaterally.

    I must admit that the Abe administration’s silence is interesting given the way Abe has been linked to the issue during his time as Chief Cabinet Secretary. However, this silence is quite recent, after all it was only a month or so ago that we had the furore over government control of NHK’s shortwave radio.

    As for the Japanese people, I would really like to get my hands on some polling data to find out how important the issue remains (at least to the public). One would hope that the nuclear issue has risen significantly since the autumn.

    Once again, thanks for popping by.


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