Japan’s impasse over abductions. It’s the North Korean economy, stupid

Image | Aritra Deb, Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

Recent news suggests Tokyo was making efforts for a summit with North Korea.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 25 quoted Kim Yo-jong, deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, saying Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had “expressed his willingness to directly meet” with her brother, Kim Jung-un. 

Kim Yo-jong issued a prophetic warning. “If Japan continues to interfere in our sovereign rights as it does now and stubbornly collapses over the issue of abductions without the capacity to resolve it, any overtures towards reconciliation would be nothing more than populist maneuvers,” she said.

Responding the same day, Kishida confirmed her suspicions, saying, “Summit talks with North Korea are important for resolving various issues between Japan and North Korea, including the abduction issue.” 

The next day, Kim Yo-jong said, “Our government has once again clearly understood Japan’s stance. We will reject and refuse any contact or negotiation with the Japanese side.”

Japan’s pursuit of a summit failed due to its misread of the significance of the abduction issue for the North Koreans. 

The “abduction issue” refers to the unexplained disappearances of 17 people along the western coast of Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. The mystery was solved to some extent at least, when the agent behind the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987, Kim Hyon-hui, said she had been taught Japanese in the North by Daguchi Yaeko, a Japanese woman who disappeared in Tokyo in 1978 when she was 22 (and who, it later transpired, was married in North Korea to Hara Dadaaki, another kidnap victim). 

Kishida is of course obliged to pursue summit talks with Kim Jung-un to resolve the issue. However, it seems that his office misunderstands how negatively North Korea perceives the issue and why.

Pyongyang’s attitude stems from 2002 when Kim Jong-il admitted to kidnapping Japanese nationals and apologized

“‘Special agency operatives conspired to abduct 13 Japanese,” Kim Jong-il told Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang. These were acts “carried out by a few obsessed with heroism,” he said. “Since I became aware of it, all relevant officials have been dealt with.”

In October 2002, five surviving abductees were allowed to temporarily return to Japan, and after a second Japan-North Korea summit in February 2004, five members of the family of remaining abductees were set free.

Kim Jong-il’s reluctant, and apparently face-losing, confession and the repatriation of survivors was a gesture intended to prompt the Japanese to compensate for their 1910-45 colonial rule.

The Japanese, however, said nothing about compensation. Instead, they focused on bringing back surviving abductees and kept asking for the return of those Pyongyang claimed had died. This remains Japan’s position.

Kim Jong-il at the time experienced a bitterness toward Japan that Kim Jung-un shares.

Even if Kim Jong-un wanted to be more conciliatory, any acknowledgement of Japan’s demands would require him to contradict the assertion that the abductees had died.

Further, some of the people kidnapped work in the agency that handles espionage operations targeted against South Korea. They know too much sensitive information. 

For these reasons, ever since 2002, North Korea has categorically rejected Japan’s demands about the abductions. 

This, however, does not mean there is no solution. There is and it goes back to Kim Jong-il’s motive for admitting to the abductions. It’s economic. Japan’s hands are somewhat tied by sanctions.

But, nevertheless, the key lies in the state of the North Korean economy.

Kim Dong-sik

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