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Category Archives: Abduction Issue

Given that there are only a few months to the July 2008 G8 Summit in Toyako, Hokkaido, it seems awfully seredipitous that the abduction issue is hitting the headlines again. In May, so far, the Japan Times has thrice reported stories relating to the issue.

On May 4th, it reported:

Don’t delist North: abductee group

A senior member representing families of Japanese abducted by North Korea urged the United States on Friday to keep North Korea on its list of terror-sponsoring nations until the abduction issue is resolved.

Teruaki Masumoto, secretary general of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, made the pitch with supporters in a meeting with Christopher Hill, the top U.S. envoy to the six-party North Korea denuclearization talks.

“If North Korea is delisted, it will give the country breathing space and make efforts to rescue our families take longer. So we want North Korea to be kept on the list,” he told reporters after emerging from the meeting at the U.S. State Department.

[…]

“My impression is that Mr. Hill takes what North Korea says at face value and may not believe the victims of the abductions are still alive,” Masumoto said. “We believe the victims are definitely alive.”

Whenever the Kazokukai are in the US, you can be sure that more news will follow as the cohorts renew their politicking.

From May 10th:

Tokyo denies asking Seoul for Yokota meeting

The government Friday denied a media report that Japan asked South Korea to help arrange a meeting between the parents of Megumi Yokota […] and her granddaughter, who still lives in the reclusive state.

“The media report is not based on facts,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference. “It is a very regrettable article when considering the feelings of the Yokota couple,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported Friday morning that Kyoko Nakayama, an Upper House member and special adviser to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on the abduction issue, asked Seoul to help arrange with North Korea a meeting in South Korea between Shigeru and Sakie Yokota and Megumi’s daughter and former husband.

Citing a source knowledgeable of Japanese-South Korean relations, the article said Nakayama made the request during her visit to Seoul last month and said she intended to return cremated remains that North Korea handed to Japan in 2004 claiming they were those of Megumi, if such a meeting were arranged.

Nakayama flatly denied making such remarks when she visited Seoul on April 25. Nakayama told reporters that while she is aware the Yokotas want to meet with their granddaughter, it is not something that can be achieved by making a request to Seoul for help.

Nakayama also said the issue of the cremated remains was not even mentioned in her talks with the officials and repeated that Japan’s policy is that it will not return them to North Korea.

Has North Korea even asked for those ashes back? Doesn’t it still maintain that they are Yokotas, questioning the DNA testing along with assumedly neutral Nature, the science journal/magazine? The story seems absurd, so much so that I wonder what prompted it. Slow news day, perhaps? That the Yokotas would like to meet their granddaughter seems assured, but to suggest that the government would attempt to use the dodgy ashes to bargain with North Korea by way of the warier Lee Administration seems a little far-fetched. Such a policy doesn’t fit within the framework of dialogue and pressure, but, were it true and if it succeeded, it would have made for a good photoshoot ahead of the G8 Summit, in line with the raised stature of the abduction issue while all (some?) eyes are on Japan. Thus, I am on the fence with this one. Was it the Yomiuri trying to show up the government, or was it the matter of the government trying to prepare to raise the abduction issue in the context of the G8 Summit? I can’t tell.

Finally, from May 12th:

N. Korea suggested existence of other abductees in 2004

North Korea suggested to a Japanese official in early 2004 that there were abductees other than the 15 officially recognized as abduction victims by Tokyo at that time, government sources said Sunday.

Yoshiyuki Inoue, who was in charge of the abduction issue at the Cabinet Office, sought information on abductees other than the 15 when he visited North Korea several times between late 2003 and January 2004, and officials there indicated readiness to reveal the fates of some of them, according to the sources.

[…]Inoue was discussing with North Korea repatriation of family members of five abductees who had returned to Japan in October 2002, and examination of the whereabouts of another 10 abductees, the sources said. But Pyongyang suspended the talks in February 2004 when his visits to North Korea came to light in a media report.

This is the clincher. If North Korea can be shown to willfully withheld information from the Japanese government in its 2002-2004 diplomacy efforts, then there is justification for the further pursuit of the abduction issue (beyond the slightly naive notion that Yokota Megumi is alive). However, that Inoue failed to comment is notable: this is surely untrue. Would Abe Shinzo, most particularly, have failed to have levied such a charge against the North? I doubt that.

Abduction politics comes in fits and starts. How extensive this current concentration of noise becomes will not be clear until the G8 Summit begins, but I imagine that Japan will once again call upon the other 7 members to stand against North Korea’s human rights abuses and finally, although perhaps impossibly, bring Yokota Megumi home.

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Abe may be gone, but the propaganda keeps on coming. The Headquarters of the Abduction Issue, the Cabinet-level office in charge of bringing the Yokota Megumi story to the world, released the 25-minute animation at the end of March, and can be found here.

I’ve skimmed through it, but have not brought myself to  stomach the horrible voice acting in the English version. Doesn’t the Japanese government know that subs are the way? (Joking, of course: dubbing, no matter how terrible, allows them to possibly reach a larger audience). I was unsurprised to find the Paul Stookey song slapped over the credits. It seems that every time the government releases a new piece of what can only be called propaganda, they are going to subject us to the god-awful song.

[via Japan Probe]

North Korea is taking on the world, and we have no choice but to respond.

Nuclear Showdown (2005) is journalist Gordon G. Chang’s conclusion to his contribution to the study of North Korea as a East Asian and global crisis.

It was Chang’s chapter on Japan and the abduction issue that first caught my eye. I found the book as I flicked around the shelves of my local store and immediately I knew I had to buy it. I picked up the 2007 Arrow edition, which includes a new foreword addressing the October 2006 nuclear test.

Chang eases you into the book and takes you along a wandering argument that climaxes with an acknowledgement of the dangerous times in which we live. He is even-handed and incisive throughout, even if his somewhat flowery prose may grate at times. He writes well, although whoever decided to forego conventional footnoting for the bizarre system employed might need rounding up and shooting: finding the relevant comments and references is a pain in the ass.

Chang’s conception of North Korea is of a regime fighting to stay alive as capitalism wells up at the grassroots-level. Chang criticises the US for being to soft on North Korea’s past transgressions, such as the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, and for not negotiating and controlling North Korea’s nuclear rise in a consistent and firm manner. He also criticises America’s over-generosity to China who should now look to become a responsible world citizen by reining in its client state, or preferably abandoning it altogether. He criticises South Korea, particularly former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, for sustaining a fragile regime that relying on foreign aid for its survival while snubbing market reform as a result of the brewing bottom-up revolution.

On the issue of Japan, Chang is sympathetic to the country’s more immediate concern of attack: the pressing threat posed by North Korea acts more strongly on Japan than the US. He also notes the overwhelmingly political nature of the abduction issue and its emotional underpinnings. Japan is most at risk from a North Korean nuke, and as a result it is struggling to stay confined to the bounds of the constitution imposed upon it by the American post-War authorities. Despite that, it must: a Japanese bomb would create a whole new arms race and set of global tensions.

It is to this tension that Chang so skilfully leads the reader. For him, the North Korean problem highlights the challenge posed to the global hegemon, the US. Chang finds WWII to be apogee of US power, and from then on it has been relatively weakened as the destroyed nations around it have rebuilt. He is not implying that the US is by any means facing the end of its history, but rather that it has a chance to solidify its position.

Chang believes that the US should reinvigorate the non-proliferation norms and regime by carrying out what it committed to in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the destruction of its nuclear stockpile. Chang suggests that even a wholesale, yet incomplete, dismantling of the US arsenal would show the state’s good intentions to the currently less-than-impressed non-nuclear powers. “The American president can give the order to eliminate all life on this planet several times over. If he decides to reduce his arsenal so that he can kill everybody only once, are his constituents any less safe?”

Chang is encouraging the US to take the bold step to make an example of North Korea. By unilaterally reducing its nuclear stockpile it will show its commitment to a non-nuclear future. He also encourages the US to be tough on North Korea in the Six-Party Talks and place all the issues on the table: from human rights to counterfeiting. By doing so, the Chinese and South Koreans will be forced to take sides (all the while under pressure from the international community to take the most reasonable side, that of the US). Ultimately, however, Chang believes that the US should be prepared to make an example of North Korea by committing itself to a possible use of force. “But if there ever were a reason to go to war, it is to save the nonproliferation treat and the global arms control regime. No other justification for conflict comes close.”

Chang’s argument is bold in and of itself. He is pessimistic for our future, and quite rightly so. At the moment, his work is still relevant. In the three years since Nuclear Showdown was first published, little progress has been made. Whether one accepts his conclusions is down to the individual, but the claims presented are well-linked and researched and show a broad understanding of the North Korean crisis in the context of global security.

Maybe our struggle with [Kim] is not the clash of good and evil, as some would have it, but it is at the very least a fight to preserve the liberal international system that has been responsible for so much global progress.

This article from The Japan Times raises an interesting, but not too surprising, prospect:

Police quiz S. Korean actress over abductees to the North
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Japanese police in February questioned a South Korean actress in connection with North Korea’s intelligence agency’s abductions of two Japanese couples, investigative sources said Tuesday.

Two former senior agency officials believed to have been close aides to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il are suspected of ordering the 1978 abductions of Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike and Yasushi and Fukie Chimura. […]

The two agents are Li Wan Gi, former director of what was known as the foreign information research department of the North Korean Workers Party, and Kang Hae Ryong, its former vice director.

Investigations have already pointed to the likely involvement of the agency and the two officials in the abduction of the actress, Choi Un Gi, and the two Japanese couples. […]

Choi was kidnapped in 1978, around the same time as the couples, while she was in Hong Kong, and sought asylum through the U.S. Embassy in Vienna in March 1986.

Choi’s husband, filmmaker Sin Sang Ok, also disappeared in Hong Kong. The couple were told by North Korean agents that they were taken to the country to help develop its filmmaking industry, and continued making films in Pyongyang and other locations. […]

The case of Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok (as the two are more commonly romanised) is well-known.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok

In the 1970s, Shin was a once-successful director (‘a film director of legendary stature in his native country – the Orson Welles of South Korea‘) struggling under the government controls of General Park Chung-hee. Choi was Shin’s ‘muse and favorite leading lady‘, perhaps comparable to the relationship between China’s Gong Li and Zhang Yimou. Their relationship broke down in 1976 after it was revealed that Shin had sired two children to another woman while Choi had been incapable of conceiving and after the couple had already adopted a child. Choi filed for divorce and moved to Hong Kong where in 1978 she was kidnapped and taken to North Korea. Six months later, while looking for his missing wife, Shin was also kidnapped.

“I was jailed for about five years, but I didn’t know at the time that it would land up being that long,” he said.

“If I had known from the start I would rather have been dead. During this time I was very, very depressed. They expected brainwashing to change me.”

His wife was also ordered to attend re-education classes. She was forced to study North Korea’s “glorious” revolution and later made to sit exams on the subject.

“I was very unhappy. I did think of suicide but then I thought of my family and how much this would hurt them. It was an awful time,” she said. [THOMSON, Kidnapped by North Korea]

In 1983, the pair were reunited at a dinner party in Pyongyang. Their abductions were seemingly ordered by an adoring Kim Jong-il, movie nut of the highest order.

Kim Jong Il borrowed more directly from outside [film influences] when he arranged for the abduction of South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978. Six months later, Kim abducted her estranged husband, famous South Korean director Shin Sang-ok. Before the pair managed to escape in 1986 during a stopover in Vienna, Shin Sang-ok introduced many new innovations into North Korean film. His most famous films during this period-a North Korean version of Godzilla called Pulgasari and a retelling of the famous Korean folk tale of Chunhyang called Love, Love, My Love-added science fiction and musical romance to the North Korean repertoire. [FEFFER, Screening North Korea]

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“The North’s film-makers are just doing perfunctory work. They don’t have any new ideas,” Kim told the couple.

“Their works have the same expressions, redundancies, the same old plots. All our movies are filled with crying and sobbing. I didn’t order them to portray that kind of thing.”

He blamed misunderstandings by thoughtless officials for their unfriendly four-year North Korean welcome. He also apologised for taking so long to get back to them personally, saying it had been busy at the office.

The idea came to Kim, he said, when he heard that Seoul’s repressive, militaristic Park regime had closed down Shin Films.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to bring him here’,” he said. Infiltrating Shin Films with agents posing as business partners, Kim explained how he lured the two to Repulse Bay, Hong Kong. First Choi disappeared on a trip to discuss an acting job. Then, on the way to dinner one night, Shin had a sack filled with a chloroform-like substance pulled over his head. With that, Kim had imported the best film talent the peninsula had to offer. [GORENFIELD, The Producer from Hell]

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“Kim Jong-il later confessed to me that the reason he kidnapped my wife first was because he wanted me to come and make films for him,” Shin Sang-ok said.

Kim Jong-il is film mad. Soon after the couple arrived in Pyongyang he took them for a private tour of his film library, which holds more than 15,000 movies. […]

Initially the director was not sure what the North Korean leader meant by a “good” film, until he took note of what he watched most often. Top of the list was Rambo, followed by Friday the Thirteenth and all the James Bond movies. […]

Meanwhile his wife was given a large room in the leader’s scenic summerhouse overlooking the river.

In a series of charm offensives Kim Jong-il went out of his way to make her feel welcome by bringing her piles of expensive clothes and Western cosmetics. [THOMSON, Kidnapped by North Korea]

Choi recorded the meeting with a tape recorder and would then use that to bargain their way into US custody when on a business trip to Vienna to arrange the distribution of a movie about Genghis Khan in 1986. North Korea claims that the pair made their own way to the North and that they stole $2.3 million taken with them to Austria to fund the film’s possible Western distribution. Choi’s tape recording of her meeting with Kim Jong-il have subsequently been aired in South Korea. By the time they left North Korea, the pair were once more a couple, supposedly with Kim’s urgings.

If it was indeed Kim Jong-il that ordered their abduction, then it casts even more doubt over the paper-thin, tried-and-tested excuse offered by the Dear Leader in his 2002 Pyongyang Summit with Koizumi Jun’ichiro. The abductions were certainly not the work of rogue or overzealous agents, as Kim would have everyone unquestioningly believe, but clearly rested with the top figures of the North Korean government. The news in The Japan Times also shows how inextricably linked Kim might have been to the abduction of other foreign nationals.

I really enjoyed a (not so) recent post by Ampontan: Logos, pathos, and Japanese politics. I would really like to get my hands on a copy of Koizumi Seiken—Patosu no Shusho wa Nani wo Kaeta no ka? (the subject of the book review which sparked Ampontan’s post), although at this stage it would be little more than extra weight on my shelf.

My research area came from my understanding of the abduction issue as emotion overcoming reason, and thus it was with a happy sigh that I managed to read something addressing these two aspects of politics in the context of Japan… a sigh because I wish I had been able to read something like this sooner.

He quotes from the review:

(Professor Uchiyama) discusses the advantages and disadvantages of a strong prime minister who frequently resorted to pathos (passions, sentiment) and top-down methods of governing. […] But the author points out the dangers of Koizumi’s incorporation of pathos into politics, which was symbolic of his approach of stripping logos (reason and language) from politics, thereby weakening the logic of responsibility.

Ampontan then suggests that logos has been the preferred political mode in postwar Japan. It is also my preferred mode of politics and the very reason I wanted to take the Japanese government to task for its handling of the abduction issue in light of the very real nuclear threat posed by North Korea. He writes:

After their defeat in the war, perhaps the Japanese developed an antipathy to the use of emotional political appeals as they applied themselves to studying and incorporating the principles of liberal democracy.

This didn’t sit very well with my gut feelings about the abduction issue, although Ampontan’s later comments settle that impression somewhat:

That is not to say that Japanese are not susceptible to pathos; the public were enthusiastic patrons of the Koizumi Theater. It’s just that pathos does not always mix well with politics here.

I had held the view that Koizumi’s conduct regarding the abduction issue was calculated, controlled, and ultimately correct. If he pandered to the Kazokukai and Suukukai, it was in a fashion that kept the politicians largely in control. Certainly when contrasted with the handling by Abe Shinzo which was an absolute barrage on the public sensibilities, arguably stretching their energy in the issue past its point of elasticity. We all know of ‘aid fatigue’, the public’s over-exposure to aid campaigns (particularly in the age of LiveAid); well, I would argue that the Japanese public has suffered ‘abduction fatigue’.

Ampontan sums up my feelings quite well:

Mr. Koizumi used emotional appeals to sway the electorate, but he was an adroit, skillful politician with an engaging personality. In contrast, Mr. Abe lacked political skills, and his personality, while not unpleasant, tended toward the bland businesslike demeanor Japanese expect from men at work.

Every society suffers from hot-button issues, the kind of issues that are used to rally the electorate and identify opponents. The abduction issue, perhaps similarly with its public anti-nuclear principles, are one of Japan’s.

Koizumi used the abduction issue to bring the electorate behind him in 2002 and 2004 (in the latter case so successfully that even the victims’ families could not stand against him). He showed a calculation that Abe just couldn’t wield as a result of being the issue’s champion. Whereas Koizumi could reel the abduction issue’s advocates, Abe simply allowed them to run rampant. It is my feeling that Abe did more for the abduction issue as Koizumi’s Chief Cabinet Secretary than he could have ever had done as Prime Minister.

Finally, the media were a crucial part of the abduction issue’s growth and strength. They helped popularise the issue through the broadcasting of a ‘vicarious trauma’, as Hyung-gu Lynn wrote in Vicarious traumas: television and public opinion in Japan’s North Korea policy’. Ampontan’s comments on the role of pathos in the media are spot on:

Ideals as these, however, must confront the reality that people consume politics through television, and that the demands of television are intrinsically pathos-based and seek the dramatic rather than the sober and the serious.

From this he concludes that pathos is with Japanese politics until the end. I quite agree, although Fukuda’s stance on the issue appears to have brought back some much needed logos. Time will tell how much of that sticks.

The Fortean Times has been a guilty pleasure of mine for some time, although during my Masters I stopped reading magazines and concentrated on my security reading. As a result, since I finished my course I’ve been playing catch up.

While reading about the links between conspiracy theories and Fortean thinking (FT223), or rather the epistemological considerations of appreciating conspiracy theories, I came across the following passage that made me stop and think:

Conspiracy thinking is mythological (or ‘magical’) thinking. Martin S Day has observed that “scientifically, [a myth] cannot be proved” and neither can it be “properly reconciled with phenomenological facts”, elaborating on Hans Georg Gadamer’s judgement that “the only good definition of myth is that myth neither requires nor includes any possible verification outside of itself”.

This struck a minor chord with my own research.

I have always considered the Japanese response to the abduction issue, in its 2004-6 form (at the height of the Yokota Megumi story), to be somewhat irrational, emotionally governed, and to some extent dogmatic.

During the course of my research, I came to see the Yokota Megumi story as a national narrative. Every nation has such stories to some extent. I daresay that the Madeline McCann story in my own country, plus the Soham murders among others, are such a narrative. They appear to bind the nation together in condemnation of a state or group, taking over the headlines: bad news coming good. Indeed, 9/11 ultimately falls into this category.

However, with the Yokota story, we are unlikely to find her alive, or find her real remains (if indeed the tests performed on the ashes provided by North Korea are correct). The story is unlikely to be resolved.

I am beginning to believe that the abduction issue might be penetrating Japanese national mythology, much like how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is now an inherent part of the Japanese nation, or how constant victimisation figures in Korean and Chinese self-image.

This current mode of thought suggests to me that an effective way of studying the abduction issue would be to examine it as a narrative. This is something that I wish to do but cannot at this moment as a result of a lack of language skills and opportunity. However, it is a thought that I will ruminate on.

From the Japan Times:

U.S. won’t forget abductees: Negroponte

NEW YORK (Kyodo) U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said Thursday he understands the importance Japan places on resolving the abduction issue as efforts are under way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and pledged that his country would not forget them or their families.

“Japan can be confident we will not forget the abductees or their families,” Negroponte told an audience at the Japan Society in New York.

[…]The North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday that the relations between the two would never improve if Tokyo continues to link the abductions with the denuclearization issue.

In his presentation, Negroponte also described Japan as a vital partner in the six-party talks being held among North and South Korea, Russia, China and the United States.

Sung Kim, the State Department’s top Korea expert, is now in Pyongyang, where he is expected to meet with North Korean officials to advance talks aimed at scrapping the North’s nuclear programs.

[…]“Even as we focus on the goal of verifiable denuclearization in the six-party talks, the United States will continue to urge North Korea to address the abduction issue directly with Japan,” he said. “We do understand the significance of the abduction issue to the Japanese people.”

Although Negroponte’s tone is no doubt appreciated by the Japanese, I imagine they wish it had come from higher up the chain: Rice or even Bush. Furthermore, if US actions don’t match their words then the Japanese are unlikely to take Negroponte’s words to heart.

Kim’s words draw out the true message: the US will forge ahead in the Six-Party Talks and Japan should follow placing denuclearisation before the abduction issue which can be pursued in an alternative forum. Until then, the KCNA continue to have a scapegoat to bash for North Korea’s dragging of feet.

That isn’t to say that the US is taking the wrong approach. Denuclearisation has to be prioritised for the security of the Koreas, Japan, East Asia and the world. If we do not face the nuclear threat, there may be no chance to address any other issues.

Kurata Hideya, a professor at Kyorin University, is a figure that has attracted some scorn for his belief that the public outrage over the abduction issue is a serious impediment to Japanese security, namely by promoting this historical occurrence over the existential threats posed by North Korean’s missile and nuclear development programmes.

I agree wholeheartedly with the opinion he expresses below. It is similar in tone to the opinion of Gerald Curtis, a pre-eminent Japan scholar, who said at a conference at The Korea Society on 24th November 2006,

Japan is not and will not be a major player on the North Korean issue. […] It has put itself in a corner in terms of taking a very hard-line policy and it is impossible for me to see this administration offering normalisation, reparations and the other things that would come in the process of normalisation as a way to entice North Korea back to the tables.

I don’t believe anyone (except the North Koreans, I imagine) is saying that the abduction issue isn’t worth pursuing, but rather that the Six Party Talks are neither the time or place. It is a matter of priorities. North Korea are reluctant to give away its newfound nuclear capabilities. That is where the focus should be placed.

Anyway, Kurata says it better than I:

‘The Six Party Talks Still Crucial to Japan’s Abduction Issue’ by Kurata Hideya

[…] Progress in the Six Party Talks — which seem to be suffering a setback due to Pyongyang’s silence despite the passage of the December 31 deadline by which it was supposed to declare all its nuclear programs — is necessary for Japan to keep open the channel of dialogue with North Korea, without which the resolution of the abduction issue will be very difficult.

[…] The February 2007 agreement, under which North Korea will shut down its main reactor at Yongbyon in return for aid and possible US removal of North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, was a clear sign that the United States shifted to an approach of engagement within the Six Party Talks framework.

Washington’s turnaround has created a contradiction in approach between the UN Security Council and the regional Six Party Talks process. UN Resolution 1718 bans trade with North Korea having to do with weapons of mass destruction or luxury goods. On the other hand, the February agreement of the Six Party Talks acknowledged economic aid and regional diplomacy as most effective in nudging North Korea toward giving up its nuclear weapons. Thus the February agreement, which would offer practical gains to North Korea, contradicted the sanctions-imposing Resolution 1718. The pledge of massive economic aid announced by South Korea during the North-South meeting last October is exacerbating this contradiction.

Japan is embracing this contradiction in its policy toward North Korea. Japan is the only country among North Korea’s counterparts in the Six Party Talks that is imposing sanctions on its own terms. Under the February agreement, however, it is expected to improve relations with North Korea by providing aid. Japanese public opinion prefers the hard-line stance, believing that continued economic sanctions and the American designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism constitute important “sticks” necessary to resolve the abduction issue.

We need to remind ourselves that ours is the country facing the greatest nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. According to the February agreement, Pyongyang must declare all its nuclear activities and disable its nuclear facilities before being removed from the American list of terrorist-supporting countries. We could have abandoned the Six Party Talks altogether when Pyongyang brazenly conducted its nuclear test in October 2006. Yet such abandonment may have encouraged the country to test another bomb. To be sure, the Six Party Talks do not guarantee the complete denuclearization of North Korea. Nevertheless, so long as there is no effective alternative, Japan must act as a responsible member of the multilateral diplomatic channel.

This does not suggest we should ignore the abduction issue. Both the nuclear and abduction issues need to be addressed, even though it is not necessary that the two issues be resolved at the same time through the same diplomatic channel. Without progress in the Six Party Talks, Tokyo and Pyongyang will hardly have the chance to sit down together to achieve a breakthrough in the abduction issue. Japan’s influence is limited within the Six Party Talks. Be that as it may, Japan must understand the paradox that robust multilateral talks alone can keep alive the bilateral negotiations with North Korea in which Japan can have its own say in resolving the thorny abduction issue.

The United States’ lack of real regard for the Japanese conduct of the abduction issue, or perhaps Japan’s hyper-sensitivity on the issue, is causing fractures in the US-Japan alliance.

The US has been linked to the abduction issue since it exploded into the Japanese public consciousness in 1997. The issue supposedly caught Clinton off-guard in an April 1997 summit; as Clinton asked the Japanese to provide food aid to the North Koreans, Prime Minister Hashimoto stated the new Japanese concern regarding North Korea’s abductions. The 1998 ‘Taepodong Shock’ showed the Clinton administration, and the rest of the world, that diplomacy with North Korea had to concentrate on North Korea’s destabilising missile and nuclear projects.

President Clinton argued in May 1999 that the best way to deal with the kidnapping issue was to settle the nuclear and missile issues and end the threat of war on the Korean peninsula. He asserted that once these issues were resolved, “it is more likely that other matters will also be resolved.” Unlike 1997, however, the Clinton administration recognized the credibility of the kidnapping issue. President Clinton and other administration officials acknowledged that Japan considered the issue important and that the United States would support Japan’s attempts to negotiate with North Korea on it. Clinton asserted again in May 1999 that: “If you believe that there are Japanese people who were abducted and taken to North Korea, I think you should keep working on it and looking until you find them alive or you know where they’re buried. And I will support that very, very strongly.”

Niksch, L. A. (2002). North Korea and Terrorism: The Yokota Megumi Factor. Korean Journal of Defense Analysis , 14 (1), 7-23: pp. 12-13

The position expressed by Clinton has stuck to this day. As a staff member of the US Embassy in London once told me in early 2007, Japan is America’s chief ally in the Asia-Pacific and the US supports its position on the abduction issue, however the issue is Japan’s not America’s, the US has its own interests to pursue. It’s a diplomatic stance, but in practice the US has sought to minimise the effect of Japanese stubbornness on the abduction issue.

Following the 1999 Perry Initiative, which “outlined a US strategy to negotiate a series of agreements with North Korea to reduce its missile and nuclear programs and eventually eliminate them” (Niksch, 2002, p. 13), the US attempted to secure a Japanese financial agreement to compensation (compared to money transferred during the South Korea-Japan normalisation of relations) without allowing them a negotiating role, presumably because of fears of derailment.

North Korea, at this point, presumably saw a diplomatic opening and entered into direct negotiations with the Japanese. North Korea has never been shy of playing powers off one another and with a possible agreement arising out of the Perry Initiative, North Korea possibly saw a chance to boost their ‘compensation’. However, this was not to be: “Kim Yong-sun’s offer created a situation in which Japan’s role in the Perry Initiative became dependent on direct Japan–North Korean negotiations in which Japan was determined to give priority to the kidnapping issue.” (Niksch, 2002, p. 16)

As the Japanese found their opening to directly negotiate on the abduction issue, the North Korean’s attempted to convince the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, an action that the Clinton administration seemed to seriously consider. As part of the diplomacy, the North Koreans would have to ‘address issues of past support of terrorism’ which, despite the abduction issue not being the reason for North Korea’s inclusion on the list, would have to include consultations with Japan regarding North Korea’s support for the Japanese Red Army. (Niksch, 2002, p. 17)

All the while, the Japanese campaigned to have the US include the abductions in North Korea’s listing, and threatened to undermine US attempts to separate the rational efforts to resolve the missile and nuclear issues from the emotive abduction issue.

Prime Minister Mori reportedly secured President Clinton’s agreement at the G-8 meeting on Okinawa in July 2000 for US diplomats to raise the kidnapping issue with North Korea. Japanese diplomats urged the Clinton administration to raise the issue directly with the visiting North Korean envoy, who arrived in Washington in October 2000. The Japanese renewed pressure for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to place the issue on her agenda with North Korean officials when she visited Pyongyang in late October. The Japanese apparently used strong words with US officials, indicating that the Japan-US alliance would be damaged if the Clinton administration refused to raise the kidnapping issue. The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun reported on October 8, 2000, that “Japan views that if the United States removes the DPRK from the [terrorism] list without paying attention to the abduction issue, it would mean the United States is taking Japan lightly.”

Niksch, 2002, p. 20

Albright did bring up the issue in her visit and in doing so helped solidify Japanese expectations that the US would support its position in the future. This perception was undoubtedly strengthened under the Bush administration. In February 2001, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Hubbard met with the Kazokukai and pledged continuing US support for their cause. This meeting sidestepped the Japanese Mori government, whom the Kazokukai felt had betrayed by after a 500,000 tonnes rice aid deal despite Mori Yoshiro’s personal promise that progress towards normalisation would not occur without progress on the abduction issue. Nakayama Masaaki, leader of Nitcho giren (Dietmen’s League for the Promotion of Japan-North Korea Friendship) and of a parliamentary group on the abduction issue, was furious at the Kazokukai’s independent move. (Johnson, E. (June 2004). The North Korea Abduction Issue and Its Effect on Japanese Domestic Politics. Japan Policy Research Institute) However, it was the start of a strong relationship between the Bush administration and the actors in the abduction issue, benefiting strongly from the close interpersonal relationship between Bush and Koizumi Jun’ichiro.

Japan’s involvement in post-war Iraq was inherently tied to both the strength of this personal relationship and Japan’s concerns over North Korea. ‘In February 2004, [Koizumi] declared that it was of overwhelming importance for Japan to show that it was a “trustworthy ally,” because (as he put it) if ever Japan were to come under attack it would be the US, not the UN or any other country, that would come to its aid’. (McCormack, G. (November 8 2004). Koizumi’s Japan in Bush’s World: After 9/11. Japan Focus) If any state was about to attack North Korea, it was North Korea. One Cabinet Office survey showed that 80% felt war with North Korea was likely. Japan was clearly frightened of abandonment by the US over North Korea. (Yakushiji, K. (April 5 2003). Japanese Foreign Policy in Light of the Iraq War. Japan Focus) However, Koizumi’s gamble appeared to pay off: “Bush declared his own “unconditional” support for the Japanese position on the families of the North Korean abductees. […] It was, as a senior [LDP] official admitted, a deal: Japanese forces to Iraq in exchange for US support for Japan’s position on North Korean issues. (McCormack, 2004)

For the US, the abduction issue offered yet more ammunition to pressure North Korea on its human rights issue. In 2006, Abe Shinzo helped tighten the US interest in the abduction issue (beneficially coinciding with a major documentary into the human drama of the issue: Abduction – The Megumi Yokota Story). (Hughes, C. W. (2006). The Political Economy of Japanese Sanctions towards North Korea: Domestic Coalitions and International Systemic Pressures. Pacific Affairs , 79 (3), 455-481: p. 473) In March, Ambassador Schieffer visited Niigata to be given a tour of Yokota Megumi’s final walk home. In a press conference after the tour, he stated ‘the United States would always raise the abduction issue whenever it talked to North Korea about anything’, and ‘that there can be no comprehensive resolution with North Korea without a solution to the abduction issue’. In April , Yokota Sakie (mother of Yokota Megumi and representative of the Kazokukai) and Shimada Yoichi (representative of the Sukuukai) travelled to the US to testify to Congress ahead of the North Korean Human Rights Act. Yokota also met with President Bush who called it ‘one of the most moving meetings’ of his presidency, an impression that has lasted.

Following North Korea’s July Taepodong-2 test, Abe’s rise to office, and the October nuclear test, the US appeared prepared to reaffirm its priorities: missiles and nukes first, everything else later. However, the US were still willing to allow Japan to pressure North Korea on the issue, as Japan was adopting an increasingly hardline under Abe. The human rights issue was a legitimate concern for the world and any pressure was good pressure. With this in mind, the EU submitted a draft resolution on North Korea’s human rights record to the UN General Assembly, co-sponsored by Japan and the US, the latter of whom had received some pressure to work to push the bill through by the Kazokukai in the form of a personal visit to Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. Yet with the release of the 13 February 2007 Joint Statement, which offered a great deal of optimism in the Six-Party Talks, the US sought to pressure Abe to be more specific about just what progress entailed.

Japan’s stubbornness on the abduction issue threatens the worth of its role in the Six-Party Talks. After the negotiations on the release of funds from the Banco Delta Asia finally came to fruition, the US clearly didn’t want to squander this new found energy. Japan’s refusal to allow for bargaining room in the SPT has meant that it is inflexible. To their minds, the North Koreans have been rewarded enough for their bad behaviour. However, now “under the terms of the six-party deal on North Korea’s nuclear programs, the U.S. is committed to beginning the process of delisting the country [from the list of state sponsors of terrorism] as Pyongyang moves ahead with its denuclearization obligations“.

What does this mean? It means that Japan is facing the possibility of being abandoned and essentially betrayed by the US due to a disconnect in their national interests. It means that when push comes to shove, the US cannot be trusted to support Japan. While Bush deals with the question of his legacy, he seems willing to burn his bridges with those that he had seemed so supportive of before. A storm is brewing, and how much damage will occur is anybody’s guess. It may be the clearest test of the popular and political importance of the abduction issue in Japan we can ever see.

I touched upon this in my previous post, but I want to expand on the issue of the abduction issue acting as justification for a more active Japanese security policy.

In the event of a North Korean nuclear attack, incredible numbers of the Japanese populace will no doubt perish. But it is still only a potential tragedy and is yet to overly worry ordinary Japanese citizens. […] For them, nuclear weapon development by North Korea is more or less a technical, abstract topic. The Japanese public is, however, strongly sympathetic [on the abduction issue] because the abductees are no different from the average Japanese who has neither a strong affiliation with any political organizations nor close relations with North Korea.

Nakatsuji, K. (2004). Prime Minister in Command: Koizumi and the Abduction Question. Korea Review of International Studies , 7 (1), 35-46: p. 36.

This quote, to me, is the ultimate expression of the role of the abduction issue: giving an abstract risk a human face. It is, as Lynn Hyung-gu describes in ‘Vicarious Traumas: Television and Public Opinion in Japan’s North Korea Policy’ (Pacific Affairs, 79 (3), 2006, Fall), a national trauma, a narrative of drama highlighting the victimhood of the Japanese nation. It was unjustifiable and abhorrent for North Korea to snatch these young (and in some cases, not so young) men and women from their families, friends, lives and countries. No-one can argue that fact. It makes North Korea seem practically criminal, a reasonable assumption.

A gander at the Cabinet Office surveys on issues of foreign affairs demonstrates the popular appeal of the abduction issue when compared to the more ‘abstract’ missile and nuclear issues. In the surveys, Japanese citizens are asked to state the issues which concern them regarding a range of areas, however the one of interest right now is obviously responses regarding North Korea. I have compiled the responses from 2000 to 2007 (minus the missing data from 2001) to demonstrate the appeal of the abduction issue when compared to the nuclear and missile issues. Please click on the thumbnail to view the chart.

The abduction is shown to figure strongly in the Japanese mindset. The nuclear issue is shown to be rising after the second nuclear crisis in 2000 and the political fallout at the start of the Bush administration’s tenure in the United States and the tougher line held by then-newly elected Koizumi. In 2006, respondents polled in the same month as the North Korean nuclear test and a couple of months after the Taepodong-2 test still more frequently listed the abduction issue (86.7%) as a concern when compared to the nuclear issue (79.5%). The missile issue also figures strongly (the three issues dominate the list of issues, consistently in top three except for in 2000 where the nuclear issue had yet to fully emerge). However, the chart does not show the priorities of the respondents, i.e. which they are more concerned by.

The Japanese populace is saturated with knowledge of the abduction issue, a human drama that tugs at ones heartstrings. It got that way due to the tireless campaigns of the Kazokukai (Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea [AFVKN]) and Sukuukai (National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea [NARKN]) and the spectacle of Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang in 2002 which resulted in the return of Soga Hitomi, the Hasuikes and Chimuras. It was at the Pyongyang Summit that one man positioned himself at the heart of the issue: Abe Shinzo. He won the adoration of the families for suggesting that Koizumi not to sign the Pyongyang Declaration, insisting that the Prime Minister extract an apology from Kim Jong-il and subsequently not return the surviving abductees to a fate in North Korea (Edström, B. (2007). The Success of a Successor: Abe Shinzo and Japan’s Foreign Policy. Silk Road Studies Program. Washington, DC/Uppsala, Sweden: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, p. 8 / Pilling, D. (2006, September 16-17). The son also rises. Financial Times Weekend , pp. W1-W2.).

Abe shaped the growth of the issue, helping to globalise the appeal of the civil society movement. His support for the issue was a crucial part of his rise to the position of Chief Cabinet Secretary and then to the Prime Minister’s office. His short-lived tenure as Prime Minister started off with a flurry of activity regarding the abduction issue: he invited the Kazokukai to his office (something Koizumi had never done, preferring to keep them at arm’s length) and then created a cabinet-level body called the Headquarters of the Abduction Issue, consisting of the entire cabinet and headed by himself (why this was institutionalised is uncertain, presumably it could have just remained as a recurring feature of cabinet meetings). Furthermore, the nuclear test allowed Abe to stretch some economic muscle and impose sanctions on North Korea, something that he and the families had been calling for for a long time.

Abe was also part of a loose group of LDP Diet members that were more willing to move towards what Abe termed ‘a beautiful country’ (utsukushii kuni). Central to this was the instilling of patriotic pride and the return of Japan to being a ‘normal’ country (i.e. revision/removal of Article 9 of the so-called ‘Peace Constitution’). Like those of his ilk, and perhaps sensibly, Abe has been said to have an ‘inherent suspicion of China‘. Despite the moderation with which he treated China during his time as Prime Minister, it is this suspicion that causes problems.

As Christopher Hughes wrote in a paper presented at a conference in Swansea (The Domestic and International Dimensions of Security on the Korean Peninsula), there are a number of layers to the threat posed by North Korea. Certainly, there is the ‘existential military threat’ posed by North Korea’s increasing missile and nuclear arms, but also there is the ‘domestic security threat’ that breeds mistrust of the zainichi chosenjin (North Korean residents in Japan), the ‘alliance political-military threat’ which threatens the stability of the US-Japanese relationship (this is an issue I will cover in a later post), and finally, and crucial, the ‘pretext military threat’.

Hughes wrote that ‘North Korea has come to fill the position of serving as the prime public legitimisation for nearly all major changes in its security policy’. When those in power have a suspicion of rising China, it is thus probable that North Korea is being used as a pretext to prepare Japan for the probable strategic trajectory of collision with the rising power. It is often left publicly unsaid, but privately, it seems, concern regarding China’s rise runs rife. This is the context in which the abduction issue is manipulated.

The abduction issue is thus one of the justifications for using North Korea as a pretext to prepare for China. It produces energetic support, and so the issue is kept alive. Hope for the supposed dead or missing (depending on whose side you subscribe to) is kept alive. Considering that there has been no real progress since the ‘return’ of the abductee’s children to Japan in 2004, there has been a surprising amount of coverage of the issue.

The issue operates within a climate of insecurity. Continually pushing the abduction issue forwards incites outrage, while fear is generated and manipulated by the multiple other issues, namely the existential and domestic threats. Thus the abduction issue is not directly part of a politics of fear, but instead promotes the insecurities and fears surrounding the nuclear and missile issues by virtue of being linked to the same target. It colours the threat perception of the Japanese people making them predisposed to believing that North Korea is criminal or irrational, a threat by virtue of it being evil and willing to attempt anything. All the while, China hawks in the LDP are benefiting from the outcomes: an increased awareness of the need for defence, and the subsequent all-threat nature of procurements and policy changes.

As a result of the multi-layered North Korean threat, Japan seems more willing to increase its military power, in terms of both hardware and legislation. The MSDF and Air Self-Defence Force have gained more offensive capabilities, considering the purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles and precision guided munitions, both of which could be used against a North Korean ballistic missile launch (Hughes, 2007). Meanwhile, Japan has boosted its intelligence capabilities, launching a series of optical and radar imagery satellites under the remit of the Cabinet Information and Research Office, increased intelligence activities in the Public Security Intelligence Agency, and greater integration of military intelligence under the Defence Intelligence Headquarters (Choi, S.-J. (2004). The North Korean factor in the improvement of Japanese intelligence capability. The Pacific Review, 17 (3), 369-397). Each move is dual-use, as open to use against North Korea as against China, and ultimately, that is the point.

The abduction issue has been (ab)used a security framing tool. It is linked to a range of bilateral issues by nature or design and these other issues benefit from the public’s outrage towards the abduction issue. The appeal of this to politicians is clear in the widespread concern expressed by the public in the Cabinet surveys. The abduction issue provides the means to act on North Korea’s nuclear threat through sanctions and military build-up. The abduction issue has become a tool of choice for pushing through regional security policies. It is a pretext and a frame that immediately lends a leader trust. One danger for the issue itself is its continuing use risks pushing the public towards apathy, but then again, memories seem to die hard in East Asia.

Notes: I admit, this is tenuous in places, but this is the point of my blogging here, I can refine and reshape my understanding of the issue according to my active research and thoughts. Furthermore, while writing this post I realised something that I had since forgotten from writing my dissertation: this is a politics of outrage too… So I have changed the subtitle of the blog accordingly.