The Japanese NGO ReACH, which advocates on behalf of the families of Japanese abducted by the North Korean regime, is active in Washington D.C. and sometimes sends me e-mails with interesting information. Today, they inform me that the award-winning “Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story” will air on the PBS program Independent Lens on Tuesday, June 19th, at 10 p.m. Eastern. (If anyone can find links for listings in their local areas, I’d appreciate it if you’d post them in the comments.)
This week, the Chosun Ilbo reported that Ms. Yokota was seen alive as recently as 1994, two months after the North Koreans said the committed suicide, and that she was not well:
According to the newspaper, Fukie Chimura (52), another abduction victim, told Japanese authorities at the end of last year that Yokota moved in next door to her in June 1994. “She lived there for several months, but I don’t know her whereabouts after that,” Chimura was quoted as saying. “She was suffering severe depression and was mentally unstable.” She added a senior North Korean intelligence official was monitoring her. [Chosun Ilbo]
For us, the story of these abductees is a chronology with a lot of very long gaps. For them and for their families, this has been a daily torture driving the innocent to madness and despair.
In the context of regime-sustaining aid from China and South Korea and eventual betrayal by the Bush Administration, it is remarkable that Japan has had any success at all at freeing its people from North Korea, but it has had some.
In 2004, former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang, promising aid if the abductees were released and threatening sanctions if they weren’t. He brought back five abductees, including Hitomi Soga, who had married U.S. Army deserter Charles Robert Jenkins during her captivity. But the North Koreans seem to have a compulsive attraction to exhibitionist brutality and obnoxiousness. They complained, for example, that Japan didn’t send the freed hostages back into captivity. Later, they sent Japan a box of ashes they claimed were Megumi’s, but which turned out to be those of some poor unmourned soul who died from God-knows-what. That may have been the insult that brought Japan’s rage to a full boil, rage that was expressed in the quiet, effective way that is characteristic of modern Japan.
In that context, aid to North Korea became politically unthinkable. Japan eventually severed most trade relations with North Korea, barred North Korean ships from its waters, and largely ran the North Korean front organization Chosen Soren, a/k/a Chongryon, out of business.
For years, the United States publicly and staunchly stood by its most important Pacific ally in demanding the release of the abductees, but after last year’s State Department policy shift, America withdrew all but meaningful support by de-linking North Korea’s abductions to its inclusion on the list of state sponsors of terror.* The shift has left Japan feeling isolated and betrayed, and shows signs of doing significant damage to U.S.-Japan relations. To keep up appearances, Chris Hill created a “working group” with the rather obvious aim of marginalizing the issue, but North Korea has never really been a good-faith participant.
But the issue of the abductees is emotional to Japan, and Japan has stuck to its guns. Today, there is an indication that Japan’s principled and determined protection of its citizens may pay dividends:
North Korea has given the U.S. information about several Japanese, believed to be abductees, living in North Korea and may send them home, a Japanese newspaper reported on Tuesday. [….]
North Korea appears to be trying to bolster the impression that it is making progress on the abduction issue and hoping to encourage the U.S. to remove it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, the newspaper said, though it is unclear whether the news will actually lead to the return of more abductees. [Chosun Ilbo]
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who is representing the United States in the six-nation talks, is scheduled to visit Beijing on Tuesday, and will hold talks with North Korea’s representative, Kim Kye Gwan, during his stay. In addition to the topic of a declaration on North Korea’s nuclear programs, the issues of abducted Japanese and the treatment of Japanese in Pyongyang linked to the 1970 hijacking of Japan Airlines “Yodo-go” flight were expected to be discussed.
Government sources said that information on the new abduction victims was conveyed to the United States last autumn. The Japanese government has taken the stance that all of the abduction victims are alive and is demanding their immediate return to Japan. [Mainichi Daily]
Amazingly, these people aren’t even among those 12 the Japanese government officially recognizes as abduction victims. The Japanese government suspects that the North Koreans have abducted dozens of other Japanese, as this pamphlet provided by the Japanese Embassy illustrates. According to the Mainichi, Japan “strongly” suspects that North Korea has abducted 36 missing Japanese are abductees, and that as many as 470 more may be abductees.
Although the Japanese government says that the return of all “surving” abductees will settle Japan’s main concerns, the likely Japanese reaction will be to wonder how many of their “missing” fellow citizens the North Koreans really are holding. As with every North Korean assurance, Japanese will be left wondering why they should believe the North Koreans this time, after they’ve been told so many lies. As Japan Probe reminds us, North Korea had said for years that there were no others.
As with any reported agreement with North Korea, this should be viewed with extreme skepticism. Maybe this is all talk aimed at creating the appearance of progress, just like it was last year. For North Korea, the calculus is always “what can we afford not to concede?” Less South Korean aid, less food, and less money this year means that North Korea can’t afford not to concede as much as it could in 2007. But with the United States desperate to let Kim Jong Il off the hook, it’s questionable whether these Japanese citizens, who were guilty of nothing more than being alone at the wrong place and time, will ever see their families again.