Sakie Yokota, left, the mother of Megumi Yokota - a girl abducted by North Korea in 1977, and Teruaki Masumoto speak to the media after meeting top officials in Tokyo in August 2017. Photo: AFP/ Yomiuri Shimbun

The abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s is back in the news.

After several years of failing to make the news, the issue resurfaced when Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo lobbied US President Donald Trump to raise their concern at the North Korean-American summit on 12 June in Singapore. Now, reports indicate that North Korea is assembling a team of negotiators ready to discuss a number of issues with Japan.

After the summit between Kim and Trump, the North Korean leader offered to explain once again to Tokyo the findings that Pyongyang had determined in the early 2000s.

Japan had spurned those findings at the time, saying that there were numerous discrepancies and that no conclusive proof had been provided. But in July, Abe stated that he was open to meeting with Kim in order to resume dialog on the issue.

However, less than a week after Abe’s acceptance of Kim’s offer, the North Korean Rodong Shinmun newspaper blasted Tokyo for having the gall to persist in bringing up the “already resolved” issue of abductees, while refusing to own up to its crimes during World War II and atone for them

This “stranger-than-fiction” issue is a trap both Pyongyang and Tokyo are caught in – with no apparent way forward.

A deeply divisive issue

During a September 2002 visit to Pyongyang by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader, admitted that Pyongyang had indeed kidnapped several Japanese citizens, as Japan had long suspected.

The unlucky individuals had been grabbed by North Korean agents and were forcibly taken to North Korea to train Pyongyang’s spies in Japanese culture and language.

Of the 17 people that Tokyo was concerned about, four were reportedly still alive in North Korea, eight had died, and there was no record of the other missing people ever having entered North Korea.

In November 2004, North Korea returned what it claimed were the remains of Megumi Yokota, a young girl who had become the poster-child for the Japanese abductees. But subsequent DNA testing in Japan showed that the remains were from several individuals – none of them Yokota’s.

Japan was infuriated, and bilateral relations essentially entered a deep freeze.

The issue was revived a decade later when Abe, who had been on Koizumi’s staff during the 2002 Pyongyang visit, made a campaign promise to resolve it. In July 2014, a Japanese newspaper reported that North Korea had generated a list of another 30 Japanese abductees, although the Japanese government denied it. Yet in September of that year, the Japanese government stated that it was looking into as many as 883 people who had vanished under questionable circumstances, and had possibly been abducted by North Korea.

The standoff continues

South Korea has very vocally brought Japan to task over Tokyo’s inglorious imperial past, particularly with regard to ‘comfort women’, but North Korea has largely been quiet on the subject. The reason for the silence could be simple: Pyongyang realizes that bringing up ‘comfort women’ offers Tokyo an opening to fire back about North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s.

While Kim plays Mr. Nice Guy in order to get out from under Japanese sanctions, his underlings are doing the dirty work of dredging up unresolved issues from a distant past.

This time, though, it is Abe who has brought the issue out of the shadows once again. So, when Tokyo presses for closure on the Japanese abductees, North Korea counters that is the pot calling the kettle black since Japan has yet to acknowledge and atone for the atrocities it committed during World War II. (Japan, however, apologized to and compensated South Korea.)

This brings up the question of why Kim is, reportedly, preparing for new talks over the abductee issue, while his state news outlets harangue Japan over wartime atrocities.

The answer could be that Kim is looking for relief from sanctions imposed unilaterally by Japan, and to grease the wheels for any possible financial assistance Tokyo might offer as inducements for North Korea to denuclearize. He may also recall that when Japan and South Korea normalized diplomatic ties in 1965, Japan supplied almost US$1 billion in soft loans and grants in a colonial-era reparations package.

For his part, Abe is being pressed to live up to a campaign promise made in 2012 to resolve the issue once and for all. His constituencies are demanding action. While Kim plays Mr. Nice Guy in order to get out from under Japanese sanctions, his underlings are doing the dirty work of dredging up unresolved issues from a distant past.

But any road to resolution is strewn with difficulties. There is Pyongyang’s inflammatory rhetoric and past obfuscation. Abe has been reluctant to clearly admit to Imperial Japan’s crimes; doing so would dishonor his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was strongly suspected of, but not convicted of, war crimes during World War II.

So, both players are at fault. Pyongyang will not admit abducting Japanese in the first place, and then lying, obfuscating, and dissembling about it. Tokyo claims the moral high ground on the issue, even though the Abe administration has been less than open about Japan’s most flagrant Imperial crimes.

That is the macro politics. On the micro front, the human pity is that the remaining ‘comfort women’ and their families in the North will not see justice – or recompense, while the families of the Japanese abductees will be left to wonder about the fate of their loved ones for the foreseeable future.

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