JPRI Working Paper No. 101 (June 2004)
The North Korea Abduction Issue and Its Effect on Japanese Domestic Politics
by Eric Johnston


When Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced on August 27, 2002, that he was going to Pyongyang for a one-day summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, he said the main reason was “to resolve the abduction issue.” During their historic meeting, Kim admitted that North Korea kidnapped Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s for the purpose of using them as language and cultural teachers to train North Korean spies, and that, of 15 Japanese, eight were dead, two they had no record of, and five were still living in North Korea. He also verbally apologized to Koizumi for the kidnappings. At the end of the summit, Koizumi and Kim signed the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, which called for an early normalization of relations, included an apology for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, and promised that neither side would commit any act that threatened the security of the other.

Not contained in the declaration was a specific reference to the abducted Japanese. Kim only promised “that with respect to the outstanding issues of concern related to the lives and security of Japanese nationals, North Korea confirmed that it would take appropriate measures so that these regrettable incidents, that took place under the abnormal bilateral relationship, would never happen in the future.” Koizumi returned to Japan to find that what he had hoped would be remembered as a successful summit that solidified his reputation as a statesman had instead become the subject of a great domestic political debate.

Power to the People

Former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neil’s famous injunction that “all politics is local” may have been meant to be applied to questions of U.S. domestic policy. But it can, depending on the circumstances, be just as true in international affairs.

As the abduction issue shows, it certainly applies to Japan. Traditionally, Japanese have been content to let the Foreign Ministry and a few select politicians run Japan’s international relations unhindered by extensive public oversight. Diplomats from Washington D.C. to Vienna to Bangkok were assumed to be looking after Japan’s interests in a diligent manner, leaving Diet members to spend their days and nights doing what was really important -- making sure the central government returned tax money to their local towns and villages in the form of public works’ projects.

But the startling admission by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese nationals in the 1970s and early 1980s -- and that, of the Japanese the North Koreans admitted to kidnapping only five were still alive -- shocked not only the families of those kidnapped but also the Foreign Ministry, the ruling and opposition parties, and the Prime Minister’s office. Most importantly, it was a wake-up call for the Japanese public. Suddenly, Japanese citizens who heretofore had been quiet on international affairs began loudly questioning not only what government officials knew about the abductees and when they knew it, but also, why the cover-up?

In the weeks following the return of five abductees, the outpouring of sympathy for their plight produced heated calls among conservative politicians such as Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and Lower House members like Katsuei Hirasawa (Liberal Democratic Party) and Shingo Nishimura (then of the Liberal Party, now with the Democratic Party of Japan) for pressure on North Korea to account for not only the other eight who were reported to have died, but also other missing Japanese believed, by many of their families at least, to have been abducted to North Korea. Despite international concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it was the abduction issue got the lion’s share of the media attention in Japan. It remained front-page news and dominated the television news programs and talk shows throughout October and November, 2002.

As the five were welcomed back to their hometowns, politicians like Katsuei Hirasawa and family members like Toru Hasuike, the younger brother of one of those kidnapped, were feted by the media. It mattered little to most interviewers that Hirasawa and Hasuike publicly identified themselves with Japan’s right wing (in Hirasawa’s case) or did little more than criticize the media and the Foreign Ministry for ignoring the issue over the years (in Hasuike’s case). To the anger of the North Korean community in Japan, none of the supporters, family members, or academic “experts” who popped up on the nightly news, nor any of the now contrite journalists, attempted to talk about the abduction issue within the broader context of history. The pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chosen Soren) apologized in its newspaper for the abductions. But the group also complained that those involved with the abduction issue were simply bashing North Korea. Members of the Korean community in Japan, including those loyal to both North and South Korea, said that, far more than ordinary Japanese, they understood the pain of the families -- pointing out that thousands of their relatives, Koreans who were “kidnapped” by Japan between 1910 and 1945, never saw their families again.

Such views were ignored, glossed over, or dismissed as irrelevant by most of the Japanese media. In October and November, 2002, outsiders watching the abduction drama unfold could be forgiven for concluding that Japan-North Korean relations had been hijacked by hawkish, right-wing politicians and family members of the abductees. Anyone searching for thoughtful discussions as to whether or not the Koizumi/Kim summit might lead to reconciliation on historical issues between Japan and the Korean peninsula, or, more urgently, what actions Japan might take to engage North Korea diplomatically over the nuclear weapons issue, found themselves disappointed. What television viewers and newspaper readers got instead was constant “Japanese-as-victims-of-North Korea”-reporting, completely devoid of historical context or geopolitical background. By December, media burnout was occurring, and the Japanese public was growing tired of the constant coverage. Surprisingly, despite the heated anti-North Korean rhetoric, one poll by the Mainichi newspapers just before Christmas showed a majority of Japanese favored a positive approach towards North Korea, proof that many members of the general public didn’t always agree with Hasuike, Hirasawa, and the abductee supporters.

But in Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki, the abduction issue remained a top priority, kept on the political radar by the abductees, their families, and, most importantly, their supporters, all of whom now enjoyed great political clout. The Japanese government agreed with surprising speed to demands made by the abductees’ families and supporters for things like financial aid. But the most controversial demand included the now infamous decision to keep the five in Japan despite initial reports that the Foreign Ministry had promised North Korea they could return. This announcement that the abductees would not return to North Korea came about two weeks after media speculation that the families, led by Toru Hasuike, were pressing them into staying against their wishes. Speaking on behalf of the association of families at a televised press conference in late November 2002, Hasuike said the abductees had agreed to the decision after consultations with family members. On the evening talk shows and news programs, speculation continued that the five had been forced to make the decision against their will.

Regardless, the five were in Japan to stay, even as questions remained about what to do about the others who were reportedly dead or missing. By mid-2004, the families and their supporters were greatly frustrated at the Japanese government’s failure to make progress on getting the children of the five returnees out of North Korea, and on resolving other questions about the issue. Since the 2002 summit, Japan and North Korea had been bogged down in a form of diplomatic trench warfare over the issue, neither side taking, or yielding, ground.

There were three main issues of contention. First was the issue of Japan’s supposed “promise” to North Korea to send back the five after an undisclosed period of time. Japan said it had never made such a promise and correctly noted that it had no right to send the kidnapped, all of whom were Japanese citizens, back to the North. This was connected to the second issue: what to do about the children of the five abductees who were in North Korea. North Korea insisted that the five come back to Pyongyang to meet them. Japan kept insisting that the children be allowed to “return” to Japan, despite the fact that all were born and raised in North Korea and a couple were legal adults. The third issue had to do with the question of the ten Japanese who were reported either missing or dead at the 2002 summit. North Korea insisted their cases were closed. Japan wanted further investigation.

Finally, on May 22, 2004, Koizumi returned to Pyongyang and brought back with him five children of four of the abductees.

With this second trip to North Korea, the long term political effects of the abduction issue are now coming into sharper focus. At the moment, the abduction issue appears to have had five fundamental effects on the Japanese domestic political scene.

1) Kim’s admission about the kidnappings and apology to Koizumi in 2002 has given credibility to right-wing hawks who have long favored not only a tough stance towards the North Korean government but also tough measures against those in Japan who belong to pro-Pyongyang organizations.

2) The abduction issue has dealt a serious blow to the power of those in the government, including the Liberal Democratic Party and Socialist Party, who supported North Korea in the past. In particular, the SDP and its longtime leader, Takako Doi, have seen their credibility destroyed, while certain factions within the LDP, notably the Hashimoto faction and its influential member Hiromu Nonaka, have been weakened.

3) With regards to future negotiations with North Korea, the Koizumi/Kim summit has split the LDP and the government into two camps: those who favor a soft approach towards normalization talks with North Korea, and those who oppose normalization until the abduction issue is fully settled.

4) The abduction issue has been seized upon by those who have long advocated a tougher approach to Japan’s diplomatic relations as the perfect example of why the Foreign Ministry needs to be reformed.

5) Most importantly, the abduction issue has provided those who supported it from the beginning with increased credibility and political influence. The abductees’ supporters have a nationwide organization that they continue to utilize not only to press their demands on this issue, but also in order to drum up political support for a broad right-wing political agenda.

Thus, the abduction issue, far from being minor, as many outside observers have claimed, has had a profound and not widely understood influence on both Japan’s domestic politics and its future international diplomacy because it has given a new generation of right-wing activists experience, money, media savvy, political connections and organizational skills to push for other changes.

An Impossible Tale

The story of how the abductions evolved from a fringe issue pushed by those whom many in the media and much of the Japanese government first dismissed as paranoid cranks to what has become the country’s most sensitive diplomatic issue begins on January 7, 1980. On that morning, readers of the Sankei newspaper awoke to a front page story about three young couples who disappeared in the summer of 1978 from the coasts of Fukui, Niigata, and Kagoshima prefectures. Photos of four of the six -- Yasushi Chimura, Fukie Hamamoto, Rumiko Masumoto, and Shuichi Ichikawa -- were included. The story also contained a sensational account from the police about another, unnamed, couple in Toyama Prefecture who were almost kidnapped on August 15, 1978, by four unknown men. After being tied up and having bags placed over their heads, the couple was told, in accented Japanese, to keep quiet. But the kidnappers panicked and fled when they heard someone approaching.

This, police had determined, was no ordinary kidnapping attempt. The kidnappers were in possession of guns and other items not readily obtainable in Japan at the time. Furthermore, the incident took place close to a beach where, for many years, locals had reported seeing strange lights and hearing garbled short-wave radio transmissions from unidentified ships. In short, police were now wondering if there was a connection between the six who disappeared and the Toyama couple and if the abductions were carried out not by angry creditors, jilted lovers, or Japanese criminal gangs, but as part of an organized plan to abduct, for reasons unknown, young Japanese couples. The article did not come out and say the kidnappers were North Korean, but did note that they were likely to have been foreign agents who infiltrated Japan by boat.

The Sankei story was dismissed by most as sheer speculation by the police. The Foreign Ministry, the Diet, and the other mass media all ignored the report, and there, publicly, it died. Without concrete proof, it was impossible to accuse a foreign country of kidnapping. Yet throughout the 1980s, circumstantial evidence was mounting that North Korea was involved in the abduction of Japanese nationals. In 1985, a Korean agent carrying a passport with the name “Tadaaki Hara” was arrested. The real Hara had disappeared in June 1980 from a beach in Miyazaki Prefecture. Then, in early 1988, a North Korean female agent by the name of Kim Hyon-hee was arrested for blowing up a Korean Airlines jet in 1987. During her questioning, she revealed she had been taught Japanese by a woman in North Korea who fit the description of one Yaeko Taguchi, who had disappeared from the very same beach as Hara but in 1978.

The revelation that Kim’s teacher had been Japanese took the Japanese political world by surprise. Suddenly, the claims of families and local police that North Korea was abducting Japanese nationals seemed more plausible. The Japanese government began quietly looking into the matter, and, on March 26, 1988, in response to a question in the Diet about the possibility of Japanese having been kidnapped, the LDP’s Seiroku Kajiyama, the nominal head of the investigation, said there was sufficient reason to believe the couples who disappeared in 1978 may have been kidnapped by North Korea.

One would have thought this was a major pronouncement. But Kajiyama did not present any evidence to tie North Korea to any abduction. Nor was he asked to elaborate as to why he now he believed North Korea was involved. Thus, no action followed from his testimony. Years later, the families of abductees and their supporters would point to Kajiyama’s testimony and the lack of interest in pursuing the issue as evidence of a conspiracy of silence by those in the government and media who were sympathetic to, and perhaps being paid off by, North Korea. But the initial reaction to Kajiyama’s statement among the families was one of uncertainty as to what to do next. On the one hand, the families were upset that more wasn’t being done to raise awareness of the issue. On the other hand, the Foreign Ministry was telling the families not to raise too much of a fuss, as it would make the job of ascertaining what had happened and locating their loved ones even harder. Family members who pushed the ministry extra hard were finally told that, as Japan had no formal relations with North Korea, and as there was no definitive proof that North Korea was responsible, the government could do little to help them.

Six months later, in September, 1988, what appeared to be the smoking gun turned up. In Sapporo, the family of Jun Ishioka, who disappeared from Madrid in 1980, received a letter from Jun that had been mailed from Poland after he had slipped it to a Polish visitor in Pyongyang. In the letter, he told his family he was living in North Korea with other Japanese, including Keiko Arimoto from Kobe. But Ishioka’s family did not make the letter public. According to Kayako Arimoto, the mother of Keiko Arimoto, this was done because the family did not wish to attract media attention, out of fear for his safety [Interview with the author, November 30, 2000]. But the Ishiokas did send Mr. and Mrs. Arimoto a copy of the letter and they in turn began the quest to find out what had happened to Keiko, who vanished from Europe in 1983. Like other families, their efforts were met with official excuses and apologies, but little else.

Shin Kanemaru’s Visit

Unknown to the families and the general public, the revelations that some Japanese may have been kidnapped were threatening to disrupt discussions within certain elements of the ruling LDP and opposition Socialists about how to deal with North Korea. If Kajiyama’s 1988 statement that North Korea was suspected of carrying out abductions was being publicly downplayed, behind closed doors it was a hot topic among those who feared the issue could derail any hopes of Japan and North Korea normalizing relations.

With the end of the Cold War in Europe, many in the Japanese government believed the time had come to engage North Korea in a friendly manner. Thus, with great fanfare, politicians with close ties to pro-North Korean groups in Japan, announced that a Japanese delegation would make a historic visit to North Korea, which took place in September, 1990. The group was led by the LDP’s Shin Kanemaru, who held no official title at the time of the visit but who had been deputy prime minister in 1986 and 1987 and was widely regarded as the LPD kingmaker, and Makoto Tanabe, an influential Lower House member from the Socialist Party.

The group was received by North Korean President Kim Il Sung himself. At the conclusion of the visit, a joint declaration was issued with proclamations of friendship on both sides, much to the surprise and shock of those around the world who wondered what on earth Kanemaru was really doing. It would later be learned that while Kanemaru and the senior members of the Japanese delegation were enjoying diplomatic toasts with Kim, others boarded a helicopter for a tour of local rivers. It wasn’t an interest in ecotourism that led to the tour, but rather, a more (literally) concrete reason closer to Kanemaru’s heart. North Korea’s riverbeds contain large quantities of sand with a low salt content -- the kind of sand that makes for high quality concrete and that Kanemaru’s construction company supporters desperately wanted. There was a growing shortage of such sand in Japan due to all of the concrete construction projects then in full steam thanks to the bubble economy.

Sand aside, Kanemaru’s visit was hailed as a major step toward peace by his allies in Japan but condemned by a small group of right-wingers as a sellout to North Korea. It stirred debate in the domestic and international media over Japan’s imperial past and current role in East Asia, and raised hopes that Japan and North Korea had finally moved toward reducing tensions in East Asia. Lost in the debate was the question of the abductees. As it turned out, the issue had been raised, briefly, by the Japanese delegation. The response was one that North Korea would continue to repeat in various forms for the next 12 years: there are no abductees.

That response was more than satisfactory to Shin Kanemaru and other members of the delegation. The question, aside from their desire for sand, is why. In his 2002 book Why Is Japanese Diplomacy Weak Toward the Korean Peninsula?, Katsumi Sato, head of the Modern Korea Institute and one of the most trenchant critics of the North Korean regime, notes that about a year after the trip, there were reports that Shin Kanemaru and Makoto Tanabe received, respectively, three billion yen and two billion yen from Chosen Soren. These rumors were widely circulated over the next decade and widely believed, but the details were murky. Finally, on November 20, 2002, Koki Aoyama, a 63-year-old Osaka-based second generation Japanese-Korean engineer who went to North Korea in 1959 and in 1998 returned to Japan, with Foreign Ministry assistance, testified at Democratic Party of Japan headquarters that “very important Japanese politicians” were given gold bars following the 1990 meeting. This was the most direct evidence of a payoff since June, 1993, when police raided Kanemaru’s home as part of an investigation into a bribery case and discovered unmarked gold bars valued at 600 million yen. Aoyama was supposed to testify in front of the Diet as well, but his appearance was canceled at the last minute when the Foreign Ministry said it was uncertain whether his testimony was accurate.

In early 1992, the abduction issue had all but disappeared from the radar screens of politicians and the media, even though the families kept pressing their case. Remembering Kajiyama’s comment to the Diet in 1988, they demanded that North Korea be asked about the claims made by Kim Hyon-hee that she had been taught by a woman believed to be Yaeko Taguchi. Japanese police had finally managed to interview Kim in Seoul, and her testimony convinced them that her teacher had been Taguchi. During this time, scattered media reports indicated that, in addition to Taguchi, and Keiko Arimoto, and the three couples who had disappeared in 1978, there were other strange disappearances that pointed to North Korean involvement, including one case of a teenage girl who vanished from Niigata Prefecture in 1977. Police investigations in all these instances had turned up no clues.

By the end of 1992, Shin Kanemaru was falling from grace after being caught up in a bribery scandal. With Kanemaru no longer as powerful as he once was, the Foreign Ministry bowed to pressure from the families and their few Diet supporters and agreed to ask the North Koreans if they had any information on Kim’s mysterious Japanese teacher. In a November 1992 meeting between Japanese and North Korean officials to discuss normalization talks, the Japanese side brought up, in a perfunctory manner, the issue of “Lee Un-hae,” the Korean name of the Japanese teacher. Since the official position of North Korea was that there were no abductees, the Japanese side merely requested that an investigation be made. But what the Japanese had hoped was a simple request turned into a political bombshell. The North Koreans refused the request and then stunned the Japanese by walking out of the negotiations. It would be years before the next round of official talks would take place, by which time Japanese political awareness of and support for a tougher diplomatic stance on the abduction issue would be far greater.

The Evidence Mounts

Any hopes in the international community that military tensions in East Asia would ease with the end of the Cold War in Europe were dashed in May, 1993, when North Korea first test-fired its medium-range missile, the Nodong 1. During the next year, tensions mounted, and North Korea grew ever more aggressive in its rhetoric. By mid-1994, talk of war was growing -- a war that may have been averted only by the intervention of former-U.S. President Jimmy Carter in a major act of diplomacy that would play a large role in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. Then, in July, 1994, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung died suddenly, ending an era. While it was clear that his son Kim Jong Il would be the successor, an anxious summer passed as the world watched to see whether the younger Kim could consolidate his hold on the military. Between concern over North Korea’s domestic political situation and fears over its missile and alleged nuclear weapons programs, Japan’s politicians, and all of East Asia, had bigger worries than the abduction issue. The families were told by the Foreign Ministry, as well as by some in the LDP, that the political situation in North Korea was now far too delicate to risk confrontation over the issue.

Thus, when senior LDP leader and ex-Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe led a delegation of Diet members to Pyongyang in March, 1995, in the hope of eventually restarting normalization talks, the abduction issue was off the table. What was on the agenda was food, specifically rice, for North Korea. Japan had lots of rice, and lots of politicians who were supported by rice farmers. North Korea was telling Japan quietly that providing rice aid would help pave the way for normalization talks to be restarted. In June, 1995, the government initially decided to send 300,000 tons of surplus rice to North Korea by that autumn. In October, LDP Secretary General Koichi Kato pushed for another 200,000 tons to be added to the total. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono was at pains to stress the rice was being sent as a humanitarian gesture and that full economic cooperation between Japan and North Korea could occur only after the two countries had normalized relations. But he added that Japan hoped the rice would help foster a better environment in which negotiations could take place.

How much of this rice actually ended up being distributed to ordinary North Koreans and how much ended up being diverted to the military or sold for hard currency would later be a major issue of contention, especially following reports from defectors and foreign aid workers about massive corruption. One particular North Korean defector provided testimony that would not only detail the extent of the corruption, but also, finally, lead to real progress on the abduction issue.

In late 1993, An Myong Jin, a North Korean spy who had trained at a secret, elite military academy north of Pyongyang, defected to South Korea. In May, 1995, Kenji Ishitaka, a producer with Asahi Television, met with An for a documentary on North Korea. He was startled when An said his school included Japanese language teachers who had been kidnapped by North Korea. Over the remainder of 1995, Ishitaka interviewed An on the abduction issue. Finally, convinced An could be trusted, Ishitaka showed him a dozen photos of missing Japanese nationals. An instantly fixed on Shuichi Ichikawa, one of six Japanese who the Sankei newspaper, back in 1980, had hinted were kidnapped by foreign agents. An told the Asahi producer that he had seen Ichikawa on many occasions. The ex-spy would later provide details on numerous other abductees, and became the main source for information about Japanese who were working as language teachers. But in 1995, most people still considered An a dubious source. For his efforts to find out more from An about the kidnappings, Ishitaka faced severe criticism from both Japan and North Korea, and charges that An was lying. Japan’s Foreign Ministry worried what effect Ishitaka’s reports might have on the attempts to reopen negotiations, while the North Korean media said, again, that the abduction issue had been fabricated. There was every possibility that An, and Ishitaka, would end up being discredited or ignored. But as Ishitaka continued to learn from An’s conversations about how the secret school for North Korean spies operated, he heard a strange tale that would force the abduction issue into the open and pave the way for Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit in 2002.

Political Gains

In the early evening of November 15, 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota had finished badminton practice at her junior high school in Niigata and, with two classmates, headed for her home, about a 15-minute walk away. Five minutes later, after parting goodbyes to her two friends, Megumi was only a few minutes away from her doorstep, walking alone on a dark road that ran straight to the beach a few hundred meters ahead.

That day had been an unusual, and unsettling, one for Niigata residents. Strange men had been seen walking the streets in the afternoon looking around, as if searching for something or someone. A white sedan was spotted parked in odd locations or driving around aimlessly, as if lost. At one point, a male occupant of the car called out to a woman who was walking alone, but she ignored the driver and ran away. It would later be learned that, several days earlier, the National Policy Agency had intercepted transmissions from an unidentified ship just 30 kilometers off the coast of Niigata. Local Niigata police were alerted but there was little they could do and, for reasons that are still unclear, apparently neither the Coast Guard nor the Maritime Self-Defense Forces were notified.

Just after 6:30 p.m., a neighbor of the Yokotas heard a scream from somewhere down the road. About 20 minutes later, others in the neighborhood heard a loud explosion near the beach and told police afterwards that it sounded as if the motor of a boat was being started up. Megumi Yokota was gone, and for the next two decades there would be no trace of her whereabouts despite a massive police search and offers of a reward for anybody who had information.

The break in the case came in October, 1996, when a curious article appeared in Katsumi Sato’s magazine Modern Korea. In it Asahi Broadcasting producer Kenji Ishitaka wrote that An (who, at this point, was still being identified only as an ex-North Korean spy) had spoken of seeing, in 1988, a Japanese woman at his spy school who had been kidnapped by North Korea as a teenager in order to teach Japanese language and culture. According to An, when he asked who the woman was, one of his classmates told An and other students that she was kidnapped from Japan when she was a teenager and had been carrying a badminton racket at the time of her capture. Two months later, Sato was in Niigata, speaking about the Ishitaka report and one of those present in the audience, a police officer, instantly recognized An’s description of the woman as Megumi Yokota.

For Megumi’s parents, Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, the long wait for information was over. Furthermore, they had a powerful ally in Sato, who had considerable clout among Japan’s conservative politicians like Shingo Nishimura, Katsuei Hirasawa and Shintaro Ishihara, all of whom shared his dislike of Japanese diplomacy towards North Korea. In January, 1997, the Yokotas met Ishitaka to learn what An had told him and agreed to allow Megumi’s name to be publicly released. In early February, after nearly two decades of ignoring or downplaying the issue, the Japanese media reported the abduction of Megumi Yokota by North Korea as front page news and a photo of her in a junior high school uniform was plastered everywhere. The issue had found its poster child -- a singular tale of misfortune that would rally the general public and politicians to the side of the abductees’ families.

By 1997, it was clear to most observers of Japan’s political landscape that the country was taking a turn to the right. The passing from the scene of the generation that experienced World War II and the American Occupation had led to the rise of a new generation that was far less hesitant to speak out in defense of such issues as patriotism, Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, and the revision of the Japanese constitution, especially Article Nine, the war-renouncing peace clause that the new leaders claimed kept Japan from being a normal nation. The neo-nationalist movement found expression in the comments of Shintaro Ishihara, who would soon become governor of Tokyo; the revisionist propaganda/comics of Yoshinari Kobayashi, whose views of 20th century Japan were an attempt to make Japanese feel good about that period; right-wing academics like Tokyo University’s Nobukatsu Fujioka, who denied or questioned the Rape of Nanking, and other Japanese atrocities committed during its colonization of Korea; and media heavyweights such as the Yomiuri and Sankei, which made sure the new conservatives would be widely read.

The abduction issue was the perfect cause for the neo-nationalist politicians to rally around because it personalized some government attitudes that angered them. Here was a group of innocent Japanese citizens, kidnapped from their homes by an evil regime in North Korea, a regime that a spineless Foreign Ministry and certain “traitors” in the left-wing media and Diet had coddled for years. The families had sought help, but what did they get? Lies and excuses from a government too weak to do anything and too corrupt to care. Good populist rhetoric, to be sure. But there was a fair amount of truth to it and now, with Megumi Yokota’s photo dominating the media, public sympathy was on the rise. The opportunity was ripe for such politicians to show themselves as the gallant defenders of the people.

One of the first to do so was Lower House member Shingo Nishimura, from Osaka Prefecture. Nishimura was, and remains, one of the most far right-wing politicians in Japan. Later in 1997, he irked the Japanese Foreign Ministry and provoked China by visiting the Senkaku Islands, which are at the center of a territorial dispute between the two countries. He regularly complains about a lack of patriotism in Japan and advocates that the country be far more aggressive in its international relations, and, if necessary, unafraid to flex itself militarily. Nor was right-wing support limited to the Diet. Many local politicians as well as academics and businesspeople seized on the abduction issue as a way to draw attention to themselves and the items on their political agenda. A nationwide movement was under way.

On the same day in January, 1997, that Kenji Ishitaka was briefing the Yokota family on his conversations with An, Nishimura submitted to the Diet a series of detailed questions about the case of Megumi Yokota. Several days later, photos of Megumi that had appeared in the Japanese media were shown to An in Seoul for the first time. An immediately said the Japanese teacher he had seen in 1988 was Megumi Yokota. Nishimura and other politicians, most notably Masaaki Nakayama, another Osaka politician, then met with Mr. and Mrs. Arimoto and the families of the three couples who had disappeared in 1978. In March, 1997, the families formed a support group to press for political action on the issue. In April, a group of Diet members, led by Nakayama, was formed to press North Korea for the return of those kidnapped. These two groups were then followed by Katsumi Sato, who led the way in forming the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped to North Korea (NARKN), a nationwide group of volunteers that would become a combination support group and political action committee. At last, the families felt, real progress was being made. Once again, timing was on their side. For just one month after the formation of the Diet group, something happened to a small bank in Osaka that would have a deep, and still on-going, effect on not only the politics of the abduction issue, but also on Japan’s entire relationship with North Korea.

North Korea’s Purse

When the Korean War ended in an uneasy truce in 1953, hundreds of thousands of Koreans in Japan, who, in many cases, were forcefully brought to the country during Japan’s colonial rule, wondered what to do. For those with families in North Korea, the situation was especially difficult. Many who chose, for personal or business reasons, to remain in Japan found themselves living in a country that discriminated against them not only legally and socially, but also financially. Japanese banks and credit unions refused to lend them money, forcing many into the hands of the yakuza. In 1955, the North Korean community organized itself into Chosen Soren, and also set up, under Japanese law, what became known as the Chogin banking system. The system included banks and credit unions that provided low-interest loans to Koreans in Japan, especially those loyal to the regime in North Korea. Firms funded by Chogin and Chosen Soren include media firms like Chosen Tsushin Ltd and Chosen Shinpo Co. Ltd., trading fims like Tokai Shoji Co. Ltd., and the Naigai Travel Co.

For the next forty years, the Chogin-affiliated institutions grew steadily until, by the mid-1990s, there were 38 credit unions nationwide with deposits of over 2 trillion yen. By 1997, however, the Chogin banks were in trouble. Many of the loans were fraudulent. In May of that year the Osaka Chogin credit union went bankrupt. It was merged with five other local co-ops to create Chogin Kinki, but the new Chogin could not overcome its bad loans either and Chogin Kinki went bankrupt in late 2000.

Chogin’s problems in 1997 did not go unnoticed by families and supporters of the abduction issue. For years, there had been talk in the mainstream and tabloid press that Chogin was a front for sending money to North Korea, often through the North Korean ferry Man Gyong Bong, which docked in Niigata after its voyage from the North. After Osaka Chogin’s bankruptcy, the trickle of stories became a flood, as former members of Chosen Soren, who had grown disillusioned with the North Korean regime, began to provide the media with tales of illegal loans and smuggled cash, charging that Chogin was nothing more than North Korea’s Japan-based purse.

These stories, in turn, attracted the attention of politicians looking for a cause. Lower House member Yuriko Koike, then of the opposition Conservative Party, spoke against using public funds to prop up the Chogin credit unions, arguing that much of the money would end up in the hands of the North Korean military. Despite the ongoing objections of Koike and Conservative party politicians like Shingo Nishimura and LDP members like Katsuei Hirasawa, by the beginning of 2003, the Japanese government had approved nearly 1.4 trillion yen in public funds for other Chogin credit unions that had gone bankrupt since the initial failure of Osaka Chogin. On October 22, 2002, when Koike asked in the Diet why money was being approved to bail out North Korean-affiliated credit unions, Prime Minister Koizumi said that since the Chogin were established under Japanese law, they had to be treated the same way as Japanese financial institutions that received government money when they went bankrupt

How much money went through the Chogin to North Korea remains the subject of much debate and official estimates tend to vary widely. Recently Japanese government officials have said that since the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy in the early 1990s, the amount of money that ends up, via Chosen Soren or Chogin, in North Korea has dropped from around 100 billion yen per year to perhaps as little as 10 billion yen per year. Some in Chosen Soren say that even 10 billion a year is too high and that the true amount is in the millions of yen.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government continues to consider what, if any, measures, to take against Chosen Soren for its involvement with Chogin and North Korea. On November 8, 2002, Shotaro Tochigi, Deputy Chief of the Public Security Investigation Agency, spoke in the Diet on the possibility of applying the Subversive Activities Prevention Law to Chosen Soren. In response to a question put forward by the Democratic Party of Japan’s Masaharu Nakagawa about Chosen Soren and Chogin credit unions sending money illegally to North Korea, Tochigi said that his agency was investigating the Chosen Soren/Chogin/North Korea links and that it was considering applying the subversives law because of those links.

As of 2004, the PSIA investigation was still officially continuing but no progress had been made and the law had not been applied. This was said to be due to the complex nature of the investigation and the fact that the PSIA needed incontrovertible evidence that would stand up in court, evidence that it did not yet have. LDP member Hirasawa noted that the main problem was that although there were many stories and reports, investigators had to proceed very carefully and that any action taken by the government against Chosen Soren had to be action taken on the basis of facts that no one could deny [Interview with the author, December 11, 2002].

Meetings with the Prime Ministers

In 1997, the collapse of Chogin was still in the future. But its troubles, which began in May, drew the attention of those involved in the abduction issue who felt that stopping the flow of public funds to prop up Chogin was a diplomatic card Japan might use to pressure North Korea for an answer on the abduction issue. Meanwhile, with the families of the abductees organized and gaining support and sympathy, a growing number of people in the political and media worlds began rallying to their cause. With pressure mounting, the Foreign Ministry understood that the abduction issue could no longer be relegated to the back burner during talks with North Korea. At the same time, it seemed clear that the North Koreans were not going to budge from their position that no Japanese had been kidnapped. Thus, when leaders from both sides met in Beijing in August, 1997, for informal talks, Japan asked North Korea’s help in finding out what happened to those Japanese who had “gone missing.” The change in vocabulary worked, and North Korea agreed to look for any “missing” Japanese. A joint Japan-North Korean team of Red Cross officials was also set up to investigate Japan’s claims.

However, these efforts simply led to more pressure on the Japanese government by the families and their supporters in NARKN, and the Foreign Ministry found itself under attack for failing to pursue the issue aggressively much earlier. In October, 1997, the Japanese ambassador to China, expressing frustration at Japanese media coverage of Megumi Yokota, told a group of Japanese reporters in Beijing that there was no evidence of the kidnapping other than the claims of a former North Korean spy (An was still not being publicly identified at this point). The ambassador, as quoted by the media, appeared skeptical of An’s credibility. By the end of 1997, An had agreed to allow his real name and face to be used, which led to a flood of interviews. In order to build his credibility among the Japanese public further, An was invited to Japan in the summer of 1998 by the abductee supporters to speak at symposia around the country.

One place where An did not speak, however, was the Diet. Although he expressed an interest in doing so, there were still politicians in the LDP, and many within the Foreign Ministry, who dreaded what the former spy might say about not only the abductions but also other, larger issues involving Japan’s relations with North Korea, such as reports of Japanese high technology being smuggled to the North.

In August, 1998, North Korea fired a Taep’o-dong missile over Japan, considerably longer-range than the Nodong 1 they had fired in 1993. This led to a lot of questions in the Japanese media, and in some quarters of the Diet, about where, exactly, the more sensitive missile technology had come from, and the circumstantial evidence pointed to Japan. Two young politicians -- Democratic Party of Japan Lower House members, Ichiro Asaokei and the LDP’s Ichita Yamamoto -- investigated these allegations and discovered that North Korean mini-submarines and Soviet Yugo-class submarines contained sonar and radar equipment, as well as global positioning satellites and communications equipment that had been manufactured by Furuno, Icom, and Altino, all Japanese companies. The list was presented to the Diet and published in the August, 1999, edition of the respected monthly magazine Bungei Shunju, but no further action was taken.

Just prior to the missile launch, the North Korean Red Cross notified Japan that not one of the “missing” Japanese could be found. With this announcement, North Korea hoped Japan would admit that all that could be done had been done, and would agree to either normalization talks or be more willing to provide aid. But North Korea badly misjudged Japanese political concern over the abduction issue, which had grown exponentially since Megumi Yokota’s face had been plastered across the Japanese media in early 1997. Rather than simply taking North Korea’s word or playing down the issue, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi bowed to pressure from those within the LDP and their NARKN supporters and in March, 1999, met with families of the abductees. The visit was brief, and little beyond the usual pleasantries was said. But the meeting sent a clear message: the abduction issue was not going to be dealt with by lower-level bureaucrats or politicians on the fringes of power. It had become a mainstream issue and a personal concern of the Prime Minister.

Whether or not it was at least partially a result of Obuchi’s meeting with the families is still debated today, but very shortly afterward, a North Korean spy ship was caught by the Maritime Self-Defense Forces deep in Japanese waters. A chase ensued, and for the first time since World War II, a Japanese naval vessel fired upon the ship of another country. It was a shot across the bow, both literally and figuratively. After this incident, whatever public doubts may have remained about the possibility of Japanese being abducted by North Korean spy boats quickly vanished.

The spy boat was not sunk, much to the chagrin of the hawks in the Diet and the embarrassment of the Obuchi administration. But any chance that North Korea might still have pushed Japan around diplomatically as in the past had just been torpedoed. The incident gave further credence to both the abductees’ families and to the growing number of voices in the Diet who were calling for Japan to stand firm against North Korean aggression. After years of remaining passive, more and more politicians in Japan were finally saying “enough.”

But not all. The LDP’s Hiromu Nonaka had risen to become one of the most powerful figures in the LDP for his ability to forge compromises among different factions. In March, 1999, he was serving in the powerful post of Chief Cabinet Secretary. Nonaka was close to the Socialists and took the lead in forming an alliance with the Komeito party, thus creating a ruling coalition that kept the LDP in power. Komeito’s views on the abduction issue were somewhat vague compared to the clear proclamations coming from the offices of Shingo Nishimura (who, despite having been forced to resign a high level position with the Defense Agency for saying Japan should have nuclear weapons, retained considerable influence), Katsuei Hirasawa, and the other hawks. Among Komeito members, there was a sense of “go slow” on the abduction issue, and some seemed more interested in a good relationship with North Korea than in pressing for answers about what happened to the abductees.

This cautious attitude was later seen in a June 2001 survey of 110 Upper House Diet members on the abduction issue conducted by the families and their supporters. Nine of the ten Komeito respondents submitted the exact same written Delphic response, which was that it was “deeply necessary to create the opportunity for normalization talks to advance, and that a means to a solution should be found in the process of creating that opportunity.” On the abduction issue, therefore, Nonaka and Komeito found common ground. When, in November 1999, Mr. and Mrs. Yokota invaded Nonaka’s home turf and spoke on the abduction issue at the Kyoto Chamber of Commerce and Industry, just prior to a scheduled visit to North Korea by former Prime Minister Murayama, Nonaka became agitated. He met with the abductees’ families, but did not allow them to enter his office, an unusual move that was interpreted by the families as a refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue.

A few weeks later the Murayama-led Diet group returned from their visit amidst press reports of secret deals with the North Korean leadership. Shukan Post, a weekly tabloid, hinted that one of several secret deals was to send North Korea 100,000 tons of rice the following February. In fact, the Diet did agree to ship 100,000 tons of rice to North Korea the following March. What, if any other, deals were secretly agreed to has yet to be revealed. What was publicly agreed was to restart normalization talks. After the Diet group’s return, Nonaka made it clear that he did not want the abduction issue to flare up and derail the negotiation process. Here the LDP strongman had the support of some in the Foreign Ministry, including those whose areas of expertise were China and Korea. One ministry official, Kunihiko Makita, of the Asia Bureau, told an LDP foreign affairs committee that normalization talks should not be stopped just because a few people were abducted, a sentiment Nonaka and many others appeared to share.

Suddenly, despite the gains made since 1997, it seemed as if the abduction issue might get swept under the carpet again. When, in late March, 2000, the Diet approved the shipment of 100,000 tons of rice aid, the families of the abductees took to the streets, staging sit-ins in front of the Foreign Ministry and in LDP headquarters. Shortly afterward, during a speech in Shimane Prefecture, Nonaka blasted the protests, saying that “Even if the whole country howls, Megumi Yokota will not return.”

Shocked at Nonaka’s remarks, the families and their supporters stepped up their nationwide campaign. Throughout the spring and summer of 2000, symposiums and seminars by NARKN drew more and more people, topped by a rally in Tokyo attended by over 2,000. The abduction issue was not fading. Public concern was growing, with more and more people asking why, exactly, Japan was giving rice to and showing an interest in normalizing relations with North Korea when that country was not providing any information about the abductees.

Meanwhile, Nonaka was working behind the scenes to make sure that the politicians were lined up behind a pro-normalization-talks agenda. In August, his friend and fellow Kansai Diet member Masaaki Nakayama was elected head of the Japan-North Korea Diet Members Federation. This was the same Nakayama who was head of another Diet committee formed to press for answers on the abduction issue. The federation had originally been formed with the understanding that it would take up the abduction issue, although it did not say how. It included nearly 170 Diet members from all political parties, and counted among its members such LDP stalwarts as Nonaka, as well as many members from the opposition parties.

Immediately after being elected, Nakayama held a press conference where he quickly outlined the group’s position. Noting that in 1997 the Japanese government had claimed some 10 people were missing, Nakayama said the problem was that the names of those responsible for the kidnappings had not been offered by Japanese police investigators. Therefore, he concluded, supplying proof of North Korean involvement was the responsibility of the Japanese side. But what really angered the families was his comment about the testimony of the former North Korean spy, An Myong Jin. Attempting to discredit An, who was still the primary source for information about Megumi Yokota, Nakayama said the ex-spy had claimed to see Megumi at a time when he was in junior high school, when, in fact, An had never made such a claim.

If Nonaka had strong influence over those politicians in the LDP who favored ties with North Korea at the expense of the abduction issue, the families still had an ally in the Prime Minister’s office. After the sudden death of Keizo Obuchi, Yoshiro Mori assumed the post. Mori was head of his own faction, one that struggled for power against Nonaka and his followers, who were part of the Hashimoto faction, led by ex-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. On a personal level, Mori was more sympathetic to the concerns of the families than many in the Hashimoto faction. He was also much further to the right, politically, than some of his predecessors, and far more willing to listen to the hawks in the ruling and opposition parties who favored a tougher line towards North Korea. For these reasons, when Mori met with the abductees’ families on September 12, 2000, he told them directly that there would be no normalization with North Korea unless the abduction issue was included in the talks. Thus, one of Japan’s most unpopular, and most publicly ridiculed, prime ministers of the past decade turned out to be one of the staunchest supporters on the abduction issue.

Or so it seemed to the families after their meeting. But just three days later, the pro-North Korean elements in the Diet struck back. Earlier that year, the U.N. had issued an international call for food assistance to North Korea, and estimated that about 200,000 tons of food aid would be sufficient. On September 15, the Japanese Diet approved 500,000 tons of rice aid, much to the surprise of the families. Why so much more than even the U.N. said was necessary? The answers remain elusive and speculative. The abductees’ families and their supporters believe the Japanese food aid reached North Korea and was then loaded onto other ships and transported to China, where it was sold for hard cash. They charged that Japan was being “tricked” by North Korea into giving more food so they could sell it.

However, this charge fails to answer the more basic question of why a group of Japanese Diet members would be so eager to send so much “free” food to North Korea in the first place. Only in late 2002 did a possible answer emerge: kickbacks to Japanese politicians from the sale of the rice. According to a report that appeared in the November 25, 2002, issue of the Asahi newspaper’s AERA magazine, only half of the rice sent to North Korea was Japanese. The other half was first sold in China, and then 250,000 tons of far cheaper Thai rice was purchased and sent to North Korea, where it was mixed with the remaining Japanese rice. Meanwhile, the difference between the amount received from the sale of the Japanese rice to China and the amount used to purchase Thai rice (which, according to an unnamed source in the article, might have been as much as 54 billion yen) allegedly went into the pockets of the North Korean government and their friends in Japan. The LDP’s Katsuei Hirasawa said this report was being taken seriously by Diet members who support the abductees, but that its truth needs to be verified.

When the promise of 500,000 tons of food aid was announced, the families erupted in anger, and their political supporters denounced the Mori administration as having sold out to North Korea. Rather than stay home and face the music, Mori flew to Seoul for the Asia-Europe Leaders’ Meeting. There, during a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he made one of the most bizarre statements ever by a Japanese Prime Minister. Mori confided to Blair that, during informal meetings with North Korean officials in Beijing in 1997, he had proposed the issue could be resolved if North Korea arranged for the abductees to turn up in a third country such as China or Thailand.

The Japanese government immediately denied that Mori had made such a statement, with then Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa claiming the suggestion had actually been made by Masaaki Nakayama and that no secret negotiations with North Korea over the abduction issue had taken place. Mori returned to Japan to face renewed calls for his resignation, even from within the LDP. He did not directly deny he had made the statement, saying only that it was an idea that had been suggested in the past.

But Mori’s action signaled to the families that the Japanese government might not, by itself, be up to the task of forcing North Korea to return their loved ones. A little gaiatsu, or foreign pressure, was needed. For help, they turned to Japan’s closest ally, one that was about to install a new leader whose administration, the families hoped, would be sympathetic to their concerns. As it turned out, the new administration was not only willing to listen but also to help.

U.S. Pressure

When George W. Bush became President in late 2000 after a controversial election, those in both Washington and Tokyo who favored closer military and strategic cooperation were quite happy. The Bush administration made it clear that it wanted a beefed-up U.S.-Japan security alliance, and that it had a radically different view of North Korea than the Clinton administration.

The families of the abductees and their conservative political supporters decided the time was right to take their cause to Washington D.C. and the United Nations in New York. In February, 2001, they were received by officials in the Bush administration, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington and made their case to the U.N. The visit was a success. Over the next year, the U.S. would work -- quietly, but with the approval of the Japanese government -- behind the scenes to pressure North Korea on the abduction issue. In return, Japan would work hard to satisfy American demands for a more active international military role, especially in the Persian Gulf.

But back in Japan, there were politicians who were anything but pleased. When Masaaki Nakayama visited fellow Osaka Diet member Shingo Nishimura at his office in March, he was angry. The American visit, he told Nishimura, was a publicity stunt that had been arranged by Modern Korea’s Katsumi Sato, whom Nakayama claimed was actually loyal to Beijing.

Yet Nakayama, Nonaka, and others in the Diet whom the families had identified as antagonistic to their cause, were losing power and influence. Just a couple weeks after Nakayama’s remarks to Nishimura, the prefectural chapters of the LDP revolted against the heavy-handed tactics of Hiromu Nonaka to have Ryutaro Hashimoto reappointed as Prime Minister. They demanded, and got, a larger share of the votes in the LDP presidential election and promptly threw their support behind Junichiro Koizumi, to the astonishment of the Tokyo-centric media pundits, many of whom had predicted a Hashimoto victory. Though nominally a member of the Mori faction, Koizumi was wildly popular with the public for preaching reform and thus considered more independent than most LDP politicians. In April 2001, he became LDP president and, thus, Prime Minister, replacing his unpopular predecessor.

The Foreign Ministry Scandals

When Koizumi became Prime Minister, calls for reform -- of the banking and financial sectors, of the educational system, and, most of all, of the Foreign Ministry -- had escalated into a roar heard nationwide.

Since February, 2001, the nation had been treated to one story after another about the abuse of public trust by Foreign Ministry bureaucrats. Tales of secret slush funds used to purchase race horses, presents for VIPs, and apartments for mistresses made headlines. Ex-Foreign Ministry bureaucrats and popular conservative writers like Terry Ito wrote best selling books that painted the nation’s diplomats as coddled, arrogant fools completely lacking in common sense, unable to converse in the language of their assigned country, concerned only with status and personal prestige, and utterly indifferent to, and even contemptuous of, Japanese citizens and society in general.

Koizumi’s answer to the cries for Foreign Ministry reform was to appoint Makiko Tanaka, then the nation’s most popular politician, as Foreign Minister. The diplomats shuddered and the populists cheered as Tanaka vowed to clean house, and the War for the Foreign Ministry had begun. One of the first to declare himself an ally of Tanaka’s efforts was Katsuei Hirasawa, who provided Tanaka with details of how the Foreign Ministry had dealt with or, rather, not dealt with the abduction issue over the years. What Tanaka wanted to do about the abduction issue was never quite clear, as she quickly found herself consumed by one controversy after another. Early in her tenure, she clashed with the LDP’s Muneo Suzuki, whom the families of the abductees and their supporters had long suspected was acting behind the scenes to block their efforts. Meanwhile, the Justice and Foreign Ministries were blasted by the political supporters of the abductees (including Katsuei Hirasawa, Shingo Nishimura, and Yuriko Koike) for quickly returning to North Korea, without investigation, the son of Kim Jong Il after he was caught in May, 2001, trying to enter Japan illegally.

Between alternately defending and criticizing his fiery Foreign Minister and battling his LDP opponents who did not want economic reform, the abduction issue was far removed from the problems Koizumi had to grapple with during the summer of 2001. But in August, the families and their supporters received a surprising report: eight of the abductees were alive and living together in a heavily guarded compound in Pyongyang. According a South Korean news report, based on anonymous sources in North Korea, the eight were living in an area of Pyongyang called Pyongchon, and the security of the compound was under the authority of some of North Korea’s most elite guard units. The report added that the eight included a woman who had been kidnapped as a teenager.

This was another major turning point for the abduction cause. Here was a third party providing official intelligence data that revealed not only that North Korea had abducted Japanese nationals, but also that at least eight were still alive. Short of direct confirmation by North Korea itself, this was as close to ironclad proof as Japan was likely to get. The families also believe that it was about this time that the Foreign Ministry began preparing the ground for Koizumi’s visit to North Korea the following year. The abduction drama was drawing to a conclusion. But there was still one last act to play out, one that provided the final proof that had eluded the families, their supporters, and the skeptics, for so long.

The Yodogo Connection

On March 31, 1970, nine members of a splinter group from the Japanese Red Army had boarded a Japan Air Lines Boeing 727 at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. The airplane, known as the “Yodogo,” was carrying 129 passengers and was bound for Fukuoka. Once the plane was airborne, the nine men withdrew samurai swords and pipe bombs and announced they were hijacking the plane to North Korea.

What followed was a four-day saga that involved Japanese authorities in Tokyo and Fukuoka, South Korean officials, the Japanese embassy in Seoul, and then, finally, North Korea. In the end, missed opportunities and paralyzed decision-making on the part of all concerned allowed the hijackers to succeed. The plane, with all its passengers, was returned to Japan, and the hijackers were given a heroes’ welcome in Pyongyang, received by Kim Il Sung, and presented with luxurious accommodations in one of Pyongyang’s best neighborhoods. They then went to work as teachers, translators, and informers for the North Korean government. Between 1975 and 1978, women from Japan were secretly flown to North Korea in order to become their brides. Sometimes the women went to North Korea willingly, such as Megumi Yao. In other cases, including possibly that of Yaeko Taguchi, they may have been tricked by either North Korean spies or Japanese sympathetic to the North Korean regime. However they ended up in North Korea, it was the wives of the Yodogo hijackers who were to play a leading role in the abduction of Japanese nationals.

Throughout the 1980s, there were unconfirmed reports that the Yodogo hijackers, or their wives, were involved in the abductions. A photo of Jun Ishioka in Spain in the early 1980s with two women later identified as wives of the hijackers heightened suspicions among the families. Kayako Arimoto said that in the late 1980s she heard reports of the Yodogo wives operating in Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She began wondering if they weren’t involved in the abduction of her daughter Keiko, who had disappeared from Copenhagen [Interview with the author, November 30, 2000].

By the mid-1980s, the Yodogo hijackers had grown disillusioned with North Korea. Some of their wives, including Megumi Yao, decided to return to Japan, where they were arrested on various minor offenses such as entering Japan on forged passports, but were not, initially, questioned at length about the abductions. Then, in the early fall of 2001, Emiko Kaneko, the wife of Yodogo hijacker Shiro Akagi, also returned to Japan and was promptly arrested. By this time, the abductees’ families and their supporters were turning up the heat on the police to question the wives about the kidnappings.

Events were now moving quickly. The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C. had created an atmosphere of concern in Japan about its North Korean neighbor, which was long rumoured to have contacts, via Pakistan, with Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. In late November, 2001, police raided Chosen Soren headquarters in connection with an investigation into fraud at Tokyo Chogin. The raid shocked the North Korean community in Japan. Chosen Soren had been considered by the Japanese government and by the North Korean community to be North Korea’s de facto embassy in Japan and, therefore, off-limits to Japanese police unless invited inside. The extensive, nearly two hours’ search by police of the headquarters, as well as separate searches at two local branch offices, sent a clear signal to both Chosen Soren and Pyongyang that the days of preferential treatment for Chosen Soren were over. In the past, the intervention of politicians friendly to Chosen Soren would likely have prevented such raids. But, with a weakened North Korea, a virtually bankrupt Chogin no longer of interest to politicians, and North Korea’s and Chosen Soren’s allies in the Foreign Ministry and the Diet on the defensive, there was nobody to intervene on Chosen Soren’s behalf this time.

Just how much of a shock the Chosen Soren raid was to North Korea became clear two weeks later, when the North Korean Red Cross announced it was cutting off its investigation of those Japanese who had gone “missing.” Five days after that, an unidentified ship was caught in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Unlike the previous incident in 1999, the mystery ship was sunk by the Japanese Coast Guard. Nobody doubted that it was either North Korean or Chinese, with most suspecting the former. But it would be raised only after Koizumi returned from Pyongyang the following September, where it was confirmed to be North Korean.

Clearly, Japan and North Korea were at loggerheads again. This time, however, Koizumi knew that not only did he have public opinion on his side, but also that, with the Foreign Ministry still in chaos and pro-North Korean Diet members on the defensive, he had a golden opportunity to play statesman, and, possibly, peacemaker.

The Koizumi-Kim Summit

The United Nations, which had promised in the spring of 2001 to look into the abduction issue, announced in January, 2002, that it was terminating the investigation due to a lack of evidence. But days later, U.S. President George W. Bush made his infamous “axis of evil” speech, naming North Korea as a terrorist state. Shortly afterward, Bush met with Koizumi in Tokyo, where the Japanese Prime Minister once again solicited U.S. help in resolving the abduction issue. Then, in March, Megumi Yao, the ex-wife of a Yodogo hijacker, created a sensation. Testifying during the trial of another wife, Emiko Kaneko, Yao said she had lured Keiko Arimoto to North Korea on the promise of a job. In a televised meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Arimoto she made a tearful apology for kidnapping their daughter.

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yao’s testimony was front page news, and there was no doubt that she was telling the truth. Public pressure on the Diet to bring the abductees home became intense. Those who had, in the past, either dismissed or downplayed the abduction issue in order not to upset North Korea were keeping a low profile. The Foreign Ministry had won its battle to get rid of Makiko Tanaka and Yuriko Kawaguchi took the helm in late January. But the ten-month struggle at the ministry had claimed the careers of not only Tanaka but several senior Foreign Ministry bureaucrats friendly toward North Korea, as well as Diet members like the LDP’s Muneo Suzuki and the Social Democratic Party’s Kiyomi Tsujimoto, both of whom, the abductees’ families felt, had blocked their efforts over the years.

In March, just after Yao’s testimony and apology to the Arimotos, the few remaining pro-Pyongyang elements in the Diet made a last stand. Masaaki Nakayama was still nominally head of the group of Diet members supposedly seeking an answer to the abduction issue. By now, the families, and many of Nakayama’s LDP colleagues, no longer trusted him. In mid-March, Nakayama telephoned the Arimotos, saying they should leave negotiations to him to get their daughter back and not make a fuss. Nakayama, as he had previously said to Shingo Nishimura, told Mr. and Mrs. Arimoto that they were being manipulated by Katsumi Sato, who Nakayama claimed was an agent of Beijing. But the Arimotos replied they were going to place their trust in their friends and supporters.

These friends and supporters now included Prime Minister Koizumi and Shinzo Abe, the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, who was appointed by the Prime Minister as head of a special task force to deal with abduction issue. Abe was no friend of North Korea, having once intervened to prevent a senior North Korean diplomat from entering Japan. He also had a long association with the family members, having supported them, albeit more quietly than others like Nishimura or Hirasawa, for over a decade.

Although relieved that Abe was heading up the task force, Katsuei Hirasawa, Shingo Nishimura, Yuriko Koike and others who favored a hard line towards North Korea also believed that a new organization in the Diet was needed. At the end of March, the hard-liners resigned from the group headed by Nakayama, and that group was officially dissolved. In its place arose a new group, led by more hawkish Diet members who wanted no compromise on the abduction issue. They also demanded a full investigation of the Chogin credit unions, a moratorium on all cash transfers from Japan to North Korea, and there were even some who wanted new legislation that would forbid resident Koreans from returning to Japan after visiting North Korea. The group had about a dozen members at its inception in April, and was led by the LDP’s Shigeru Ishiba, whose dedication to the abduction cause, as well as his neo-nationalistic views on defense, would be rewarded after the Koizumi-Kim summit with an appointment as Director General of the Defense Agency. The formation of the special task force and the Diet group was accompanied by mainstream media reports, and hints from the new group of Diet members, that Mr. and Mrs. Arimoto might be able to go to North Korea to visit their daughter soon.

Hopes throughout Japan were high that a settlement to the abduction issue was not far away. But the Japanese government was now engaged in an elaborate bunraku performance. A summit with Koizumi and Kim was being hammered out in secret, but, publicly, it appeared no progress on the abduction issue was being made. In mid-August, the North Korean Red Cross agreed to talk to their Japanese counterparts about the abductions. This time, rather than repeating past statements, they told the Japanese that the abduction issue was now a “political” issue, not a humanitarian one and hence beyond their control. A few days later, with the Koizumi-Kim summit all but agreed to, Japanese and North Korean Foreign Ministry officials met, but no progress was made. Given that both sides knew Koizumi would be going to Pyongyang soon, it is doubtful if either side seriously believed that any progress could be made at these meetings, but the public was still in the dark.

Then, the Americans entered the scene with some bad news. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Tokyo just a few hours after the Foreign Ministry bureaucrats had returned from their negotiations with North Korea. Armitage was told of Koizumi’s planned visit, but the Americans had a message of their own: the U.S. had credible evidence that North Korea had a secret nuclear weapons program. The U.S. government was worried that a Japanese summit with Kim would make it harder for Japan to condemn North Korea. In addition, there were fears in Washington that such a summit would lead to a more independent Japan diplomatically, one that might not always follow the U.S. lead.

But Koizumi, whose popularity was waning after a year and a half of reform promises that had yet to be realized, was not to be denied. On August 27, 2002, he announced he was going to meet with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang to resolve the abduction issue. On September 17, history was made as the two leaders met and Kim admitted to and apologized for the kidnappings. A list was handed to the Japanese delegation. North Korea said it had tracked down fifteen Japanese nationals whom it had kidnapped over the years. Of these, eight, including Megumi Yokota and Keiko Arimoto, were dead. Two could not be accounted for. Five, including two of the three couples who had been first reported missing by the Sankei in 1980, were still alive, while Hitomi Soga, who had disappeared with her mother from Sadoshima Island in 1978, was also identified. All had families, and Megumi Yokota, North Korea said, had left behind a daughter who was now 15 years old. The two governments reached an agreement to allow the five Japanese, but not their families, to visit Japan (though for how long was to be the subject of much controversy), and Koizumi returned home.

Shock, joy, relief, rage. . . . Kim’s announcement produced a full spectrum of emotions among the families, their supporters, and the general public in Japan. Neither the Yokotas nor the Arimotos believed their daughters were dead, while the Yokotas wondered if they really did have a 15-year-old grand-daughter. Later DNA testing confirmed that they did. Other families, their supporters, and politicians like Katsuei Hirasawa and Shinzo Abe, whose political stock had now risen to stratospheric levels, insisted the issue was far from resolved and that North Korea still had much to answer for. Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara threw in his two cents by suggesting the true number of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea might be 100 or more.

But on the afternoon of October 16, 2002, these controversies were put aside as a chartered All Nippon Airways jet landed at Haneda airport. On board were five very special passengers who had flown from Pyongyang. On hand to greet them were their families, plus the Yokotas and the Arimotos, and all of the politicians who had supported the abduction cause over the years. Exiting the airplane on a beautiful autumn day, the five passengers descended the steps and fell sobbing into the arms of their long-lost relatives. After 24 years, Yasushi Chimura, Fukie Hamamoto, Kaoru Hasuike, Yukiko Okudo, and Hitomi Soga had finally come home.

Power Games

As 2003 began, the Japanese government faced a host of abduction-related issues. These ranged from bringing the children of the abductees to Japan to convincing the United States not to prosecute the American husband of Hitomi Soga, who had deserted from the U.S. Army in 1965 and gone to Pyongyang, to figuring out how to deal with demands from the abductees’ supporters that other incidents of alleged kidnappings be investigated. Media polls indicated that many ordinary Japanese favored a positive approach towards North Korea. But Koizumi now had to deal with new political rivals who would watch very carefully his every move on Japan-North Korea relations and the abduction issue, which had become linked and were part of Japan’s political reality.

Meanwhile, in the immediate weeks after their return, the five abductees, supposedly free, found themselves closely guarded by their families and the army of “concerned supporters.” At first, there were legitimate worries that North Korean agents in Japan would monitor the five and possibly threaten them or their children if they spoke too freely. Fears were heightened by the presence of a North Korean “Red Cross” official who had accompanied the five back to Japan in October, 2002, but who, apparently, was unknown to the Japanese Red Cross when he showed up at their headquarters for what he claimed was a previously scheduled appointment. Most concluded he was a spy sent by the North Korean government to monitor the five.

For the first six months or so after their return, media access to the five was limited to scripted press conferences with the Japan Newspaper Association. The association had agreed to family, and supporter, demands not to cover the five “excessively.” The families claimed the five had to be protected from “saying something that could harm their children.” But this agreement ensured that no reporter would ask questions that the families and their supporters didn’t like. While those who belonged to kisha clubs treated the issue with kid gloves, the independent magazine Shukan Kinyobi enraged the families by publishing an interview with Hitomi Soga’s American husband in North Korea. Mainstream reporters, frustrated at the cloak of secrecy and censorship imposed by their editors, vented their spleens anonymously in the muckraking journal Uwasa no Shinso, which, until it folded in April 2004, ran almost monthly attacks on family members like Toru Hasuike and NARKN, charging they were neo-fascist control freaks.

In my own experience covering the issue for The Japan Times, I discovered that, while family members, with the exception of Toru Hasuike, usually avoided polemical statements and seemed to bear no ill will towards the people of North Korea, their supporters often held extreme right-wing views on Japanese history and favored a sweeping conservative political agenda.

Media coverage of the abductees was highly controlled until about mid-2003. Then a media backlash developed and public unease grew over the more extreme comments by the group’s supporters. Seeing no progress in talks with North Korea, and watching their American supporters in the Bush administration become obsessed with the war in Iraq, the family members began to allow more media access to the five abductees. But the families also began quarreling among themselves over how to best press North Korea on its claim that eight had died, and how to bring the families of the abductees to Japan. Tensions became particularly noticeable between the Yokotas on the one hand and Toru Haseike and Teruaki Masumoto, the brother of abductee Rumiko Masumoto, whom North Korea claimed was dead. Mr. Yokota, a sedate former Bank of Japan official, often got angry at the heated rhetoric of Hasuike and Masumoto, both of whom constantly bashed the Japanese government and anyone else who didn’t see things their way. Yet such tensions didn’t stop the ever-loyal Yokotas from appearing with Hasuike at symposia sponsored by long-term supporters who favored everything from whitewashed history textbooks, to rounding up all Japanese-Koreans loyal to Chosen Soren and deporting them, to enacting legislation that would forbid marriages between Japanese and Koreans in Japan who were connected to Chosen Soren.

Meanwhile, throughout 2003 and 2004, reports leaked out that Hitomi Soga wanted to return to North Korea to be with her husband and children. She was also said by reporters in Niigata to be furious with the family association for their unwillingness to push the government to grant her request. By the Lower House elections in November 2003, all five abductees were wondering if they would ever see their children again.

Back to Pyongyang

In the November 2003 Upper House elections the abductions were a major campaign issue. The LDP officially made solving the abduction issue part of its platform, and days before the elections the Democratic Party of Japan, whose members now included Shingo Nishimura after the merger between the Democrats and Ichiro Ozawa’s Liberal Party, officially declared itself on the side of the families. In Hyogo Prefecture, Social Democratic Party stalwart Takako Doi was defeated in a head-to-head battle with a virtual unknown who had long supported the Arimotos and the abduction issue. In neighboring Osaka Prefecture, Shingo Nishimura, who had barely scraped by in the last election, won with a comfortable margin this time around.

But the families were growing restless. Lots of promises had been made by white-gloved politicians in search of votes, but the abductees’ children were still in North Korea. Now, however, their political influence in the Diet was manifesting itself in other ways. As 2004 opened, younger LDP members like Ichita Yamamoto, Taro Kono, with the support of the Democratic Party, led the way in turning up the heat on North Korea. Talk in Nagata-cho at this time was of holding “three aces” -- three diplomatic cards in the form of three separate legislative proposals designed to stop the flow of kane, mono, and hito (money, goods, and people) from Japan to North Korea.

The families, and especially their supporters, had long wanted Japan to play or at least threaten North Korea with all three aces. The first ace, a bill that was actually a revision of the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law, was designed to make it much more difficult for North Koreans in Japan to remit money to North Korea. That bill passed the Diet in February, 2004.

The second ace was also a bill: a proposal to ban ships from certain countries from entering Japan if they were considered “terrorist” countries. Specifically, this bill targeted the Man Gyong Bong; its supporters hoped its passage, and enforcement, would keep the North Korean ship from entering Niigata port. As of June, 2004, that bill had passed in the Lower House and was expected to pass the Upper House by the end of June. After that, the Cabinet will have to determine whether the law should be applied toward ships of a particular country, and Diet approval would be needed of a Cabinet decision to apply the law.

The third ace was not a legislative bill but just whispers and rumblings among certain politicians because it was the most controversial idea of all: banning Koreans in Japan from returning home if they visited North Korea. While politicians like Shingo Nishimura openly supported such a bill, few others did. As of May, 2004, it was unclear just how much support such drastic legislation might have, even among the more conservative elements of the ruling party.

Although the “three aces” were making North Korea nervous, it still held the children of the abductees. However, after the hard winter of 2003/04, Japanese pundits believed that North Korea wanted Japanese aid in whatever form it could get. Officially, things remained deadlocked until April, 2004, when there was finally a breakthrough. Katsuei Hirasawa and former LDP powerbroker Taku Yamasaki, a close friend of Koizumi, met secretly with North Korean officials in China. North Korea had long wanted to meet somebody close, personally, to Koizumi. Although Yamasaki had lost his Diet seat, he was still influential behind the scenes. Yamasaki and Hirasawa had previously met North Korean officials in December of 2003, but no progress had been made. Now, with the first of the three aces (the Foreign Exchange Law revision) passed into law, North Korea appeared more willing to deal. According to Hirasawa, the North Koreans were worried that if they let the children go, Japan would forget all about the Pyongyang Declaration, normalization of relations, and any possible future aid [Interview on Asahi TV, March 21, 2004].

But Koizumi was also in a fix. The hawks in his own party and many in the Democratic Party of Japan were breathing down his neck, public sentiment had turned against him due to the controversial dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, and he faced Upper House elections in the summer of 2004. Koizumi was desperate for a diplomatic victory, and thanks to Hirasawa and Yamasaki, a second visit to Pyongyang was hammered out and announced in early May.

The families and supporters were split on the wisdom of such a visit. Hirasawa’s behind-the-scenes meeting with North Korea had irked them, and they became even more suspicious of his motives when it was reported that Japan had secretly agreed to provide 250,000 tons of food aid to North Korea. On the other hand, Kaoru Hasuike and his wife Yukiko Okudo and Yasushi Chimura and his wife Fukie Hamamoto couldn’t hide their joy at reports that Koizumi would possibly be returning with their children -- if everything went well.

Hitomi Soga was a different story. Throughout May, Japanese officials pressed the United States not to arrest Soga’s husband, Robert Charles Jenkins, if he came to Japan. Jenkins had disappeared from his Army unit in 1965 along the North Korean border, and, based on letters of apology found in his locker afterwards, appears to have defected. The U.S., facing massive problems Iraq at this time, was in no mood to compromise. On May 20, 2004, Richard Armitage said that the Jenkins case was extremely sensitive, which was interpreted to mean that Japan would run the risk of being pressured by the U.S. to turn him over if he set foot in Japan.

“We Were Betrayed”

When Koizumi departed Tokyo’s Haneda airport on the morning of May 22, 2004, for his second meeting with Kim Jong Il, it was unclear what, exactly, he’d be saying to Kim and who, exactly, he’d be returning with. The trip, all of the pundits agreed, was a major political risk. The families, their supporters, and the media expected a long day of tough discussions with Kim over not only the children of the five, but the other ten whom North Korea now claimed were dead as well as others whom supporters claimed were probably abducted.

But just 90 minutes after the meeting began, it was over. Koizumi announced in the late afternoon that he would be returning with only the children of the Hasuikes and the Chimuras, while Hitomi Soga could fly to Beijing at a future date to meet her husband and children and discuss what they wanted to do. Despite a one-on-one meeting with Koizumi, Jenkins -- the aging American from North Carolina who is reportedly in failing health but very well informed about America’s views towards his situation -- did not wish to go to Japan. Nor, apparently, did his daughters.

Koizumi gave up, and returned home. On board a separate plane were the three children of the Chimuras and the two children of the Hasuikes. Unlike the media fanfare of their parents’ return in 2002, they arrived at Haneda in the evening, with the TV cameras far away. They were quickly whisked into a bus where their parents were waiting, and were taken to a Tokyo area hotel for the night. Upon arrival, Koizumi met with the parents, and all of the other parents, brothers, and sisters of those who had been abducted.

It was a stormy scene. The families and the politicians were divided on whether or not the trip had been a success. Shigeru Yokota called it the “worst possible result” and, barely controlling his anger, asked Koizumi why he had spent only an hour and a half with Kim, and why Japan had agreed to send not only 250,000 tons of rice aid but also 10 million dollars worth of medical equipment to North Korea? Fumiko Hirano, the sister of Rumiko Masumoto, said that the Prime Minister had betrayed the families of those whose relatives were still missing.

Elsewhere, Hirasawa, who at first defended the Prime Minister’s trip and the results, appeared to backtrack when it became clear that the families, their supporters, and much of the media coverage were negative. Takao Hiranuma, former METI minister and now head of a group of Diet members supporting the abduction issue, also blasted Koizumi. The international press, on the other hand, praised Koizumi, and -- to the surprise and anger of the families and their supporters -- domestic polls after the visit showed that about 60 percent of the Japanese public thought it was a success. At the same time, one poll indicated that 80 percent felt that the visit had not resolved the abduction issue while another 60 percent opposed humanitarian aid to North Korea. As was the case in 2002, Koizumi once again found that his desire to appear statesmanlike over the abduction issue was, instead, thwarted by domestic politics.

Although still developing, the history of the abduction issue has so far had five visible effects on Japan’s domestic political situation. These were briefly summarized at the outset of this account, but let me now expand on them.

(1) There is growing public support of right-wing ruling and opposition party politicians calling for stern measures against North Korea and Koreans in Japan plus a sweeping investigation of Chosen Soren and Japan’s North Korean connections.

Katsuei Hirasawa, Shingo Nishimura, Yuriko Koike, Shinzo Abe, Shintaro Ishihara and others who have long supported the abductees, share, to varying degrees, the same ideology towards North Korea. Some measures they have suggested, such as not allowing those who visit North Korea to return to Japan, are a clear violation of the human rights of Japanese-Koreans innocent of any wrongdoing. Other measures, such as an investigation of Chosen Soren’s possible role as an accomplice in the abductions, are, given the facts, legitimate, and would likely have the backing of much of the public.

Few in Nagata-cho would be in a position to seriously block such an investigation because the abduction issue, along with the collapse of Chogin and confessions by ex-Chosen Soren members that the organization funneled money to North Korea and assisted North Korean spies, has finished Chosen Soren as a major political actor. Two ex-Chosen Soren members, Chang Young-Ung (who died in 2001) and Han Gwong-hi, testified in published works released in 1999 and 2002 respectively that they collected money from Chosen Soren chapters throughout the nation and sent it illegally to North Korea. Han added that he sometimes traveled to beaches along the Japan Sea coast in the dead of night to meet with North Korean spies who came in by boat, and even provided a map as to where the landing points were. The Diet group established in March, 2002, has promised to look into these claims.

Although the abduction issue would be the initial focus of a Chosen Soren investigation, it would lead to the Diet having to pursue the other, much-repeated stories over the years of money smuggled to North Korea, such as via the Man Gyong Bong, the North Korean ship that docks in Niigata. It would have to probe the tangled relationship that Chosen Soren has had with the Chogin banking system. Finally, it could lead to an investigation of Chosen Soren’s relations with Japanese politicians and businesses over the years and, perhaps, finally determine if the rumors of payoffs were mostly fact or fiction.

In short, a full inquiry by the Diet into the abduction issue and Chosen Soren’s possible role would become the most controversial domestic investigation in Japan's postwar history, an opening of a Pandora’s Box of long-kept secrets and dirty deals that could very well rewrite much of Japan’s, and Asia’s, postwar history. No political or public consensus to open that box has yet been reached. But it is building and will continue to build, thanks to the abduction issue and its newly empowered political supporters.

(2) The virtual extinction of the Social Democrats, and the further loss of power among those LDP factions that have advocated friendly relations with North Korea is underway.

Since Koizumi’s first visit to North Korea, the SDP has apologized time and time again for its association over the years with North Korea, all to no avail. Once a vital opposition force, the past few years have seen the party become no more than a support group for its leader, Takako Doi. In November, 2003, Doi, who is from the area near Kobe, was defeated in the Lower House elections by Shigeo Ohmae, a local politician who had long been a member of the abductee support group NARKN as well as sympathetic to various right-wing causes. Ohmae had spent years targeting Doi over the abduction issue. Doi’s supporters admitted the abduction issue had cost her the election (she was returned to the Diet as a proportional representative, but Mizuho Fukushima became head of the party).

In addition to Doi, those LDP members, like Hiromu Nonaka and others who were inclined to take a soft line towards North Korea at the expense of the abduction issue, have been purged or marginalized. Nonaka lost a power struggle with Koizumi before the November 2003 Upper House election and resigned.

Members of NARKN unofficially supported candidates in the Lower House election against those politicians in both the ruling and opposition parties whom they believed had deceived them over the years, and now have their eye on the Upper House elections in July. They will give their full support to family members like Teruaki Masumoto, who will likely become a candidate.

3) A split in the Japanese government has developed over how best to deal with North Korea.

Because North Korea has admitted to a nuclear weapons program and is now considered an international threat, and now that the children of four of the five abductees are safely in Japan, some in the Japanese government believe it is time to put away the heated emotions attached to the abduction issue. They think Japan should deal with North Korea in a firm but calm and rational manner, and that the abduction issue should no longer dominate discussions nor, more importantly, stand in the way of normalization talks.

That is the argument some LDP, as well as the Foreign Ministry and Defense Agency “pragmatists” are making to Koizumi as he struggles for to find an effective diplomatic policy vis-à-vis North Korea. In addition, the pragmatists worry that Japan is being isolated in the Six Nation talks on North Korea, and that if it keeps harping on the abduction issue, it will lose regional influence with South Korea and China.

Although public opinion in mid-2004 appears to be leaning more towards the pragmatists than in 2002, such opinion is fickle and could easily change. Moreover, the hardliners still command a good deal of clout. Koizumi has to think about the popularity of the hardliners vis-à-vis North Korea and not just those within his own party. Since the elections of November, 2003, the opposition Democratic Party has taken a tough stance on the abduction issue and a tougher line towards North Korea. Back in the LDP, Shinzo Abe’s deft handling of North Korea since the 2002 summit has some in the media talking about him as an eventual successor to Koizumi. Abe has said that he is against normalization until the abduction issue is resolved, although to whose satisfaction remains the subject of much discussion -- which leaves Abe and the hardliners some wiggle room for negotiations with other factions of the LDP who favor normalization first and then talks.

The LDP is not going to split over the abduction issue (an absurd thought, indeed). But despite some polls that indicate Japan should be thinking more about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the Prime Minister always has to worry about a power shift within his own party toward the hardliners on the abduction issue, a shift that could force him out when the next elections for LDP president roll around.

4) There are calls among many Diet members, especially in the conservative camp, for a more independent Japanese foreign policy and for basic structural reform of the Foreign Ministry.

Of all the actors in the quarter-century long abduction drama, the Foreign Ministry has emerged as the chief villain. Conservative politicians have labeled its bureaucrats traitors for their handling of the issue, and have charged them with kowtowing to North Korean demands, ignoring the available evidence, and treating the families with contempt. There is a great deal of truth to these charges. But it is equally true that for virtually all of the postwar period, Japanese politicians and the general public were perfectly content to let the Foreign Ministry handle Japan’s international relations without a lot of scrutiny and criticism. The abduction issue has shown the public may not be so passive in the future.

The politicians certainly aren’t. Those who involved themselves in the abduction issue have long called for Foreign Ministry reform, which means not only operating with more public accountability, but in a way that more aggressively defends Japan’s interests and the rights of ordinary Japanese citizens.

But what kind of change is needed? Should more legal power to conduct international diplomacy be given to the Prime Minister’s office or the Diet? Or, should the laws be changed only to allow for greater Diet oversight of the Foreign Ministry? What changes will benefit Japan in the long run? These questions are now being debated in Nagata-cho and Kasumigaseki, and the Prime Minister will face them, in one form or another, throughout the year.

5) A national network has arisen of organized, politically aware citizens who are neo-nationalists in favor of an aggressive foreign policy and have a right-wing social agenda.

Finally, and most importantly, the abduction issue proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that citizen activists in Japan can directly affect foreign policy. The National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, and core members like Katsumi Sato, played a key role throughout the abduction drama, keeping the families’ spirits up when they were depressed, rallying the support of sympathetic politicians, planning strategy, and working tirelessly to get the story out to the media.

The role and influence in Nagata-cho of Sato in particular is not well understood outside of Japan. A former leftist who turned right, Sato, in addition to his roles with NARKN and Modern Korea is also connected to various right wing groups. He serves as an adviser to Ishin Seito Shinpu, or “Restoration Party—New Wind,” which advocates a prewar Emperor system, “patriotic” education, and a strong military. On its well-designed website, the Restoration Party promotes itself as something of a modern version of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere -- an intellectual/humanitarian organization dedicated to “Japanese values” -- and claims to have two foreign academics as advisers (an Italian professor, Romano Vulpitta, who teaches European culture and history at Kyoto Sangyo University and claims to be an admirer of Mussolini, and Pema Byalpo, a Tibetan academic and TV personality, who teaches at Gifu Women’s College and is a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama). The party is far more eloquent and media-savvy -- and politically connected -- than its crude cousins who blast their anger and hatred through loudspeakers on public streets.

In the case of NARKN, there is no doubt its members will continue to demand that no normalization talks take place until the abduction issue is settled to their satisfaction. Like the right-wing groups, they will not hesitate to bitterly criticize, and oppose, politicians, bureaucrats and those in the media whom they see as being soft on North Korea. NARKN is not a fringe group. By the time Koizumi went to Pyongyang in 2002, the association claimed thousands of official and unofficial supporters throughout Japan, and had formally established chapters in nearly a dozen prefectures. It continues to retain a strong presence in Nagata-cho.

While NARKN itself has no stated policy toward anything other than the kidnapping issue, many members, as illustrated by Sato, have right-wing or nationalist views. At rallies to support the abductees over the years, members have used the occasions to air their views or offer words of support for the other ideas of politicians like Shingo Nishimura, who believes Japan should have nuclear weapons. NARKN’s experience with the abduction issue has taught it that the Foreign Ministry cannot be trusted, that North Korea cannot be trusted, and that many current politicians in the Diet cannot be trusted. They believe, rightly so, that they helped win a major victory for Japan by forcing Kim Jong Il to admit to the abductions and that their efforts over the years helped bring five of the abductees home.

Thus, their success with the abduction issue has emboldened many members to utilize NARKN’s experience, contacts, and resources to push politicians on other issues where they don’t trust the government, and in particular the Foreign Ministry view. These range from a more confrontational stance toward China and Korea on the subject of history textbooks, to support of the Prime Minister’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine, to teaching Japanese children “morals” and “patriotism” in school.

Unfortunately, information about some of these NARKN members, who they really are, and what they really want, remains vague. Since September, 2003, the one-year anniversary of the first Kim-Koizumi summit, there have been a number of disturbing incidents that also suggest some supporters, whether or not they belong to NARKN, will resort to extreme methods. That month, Hitoshi Tanaka, the Foreign Ministry official publicly charged by family members like Toru Hasuike and NARKN with being an enemy to their cause, was the victim of a bomb threat by persons unknown. Since the 2002 summit, Chosen Soren members have also suffered anonymous bomb threats and other forms of verbal abuse by persons unknown, actions that neither the families nor their supporters have strongly condemned in public. Meanwhile, Kazuhito Araki, an early supporter of the abduction issue and now in charge of a separate group that is investigating the possible kidnapping by North Korea of several hundred missing persons, has publicly declared it may be necessary for the Self-Defense Forces to invade North Korea to rescue any Japanese who remain kidnapped. And anybody who has ever attended a NARKN rally can be forgiven for thinking they’ve stumbled onto a right-wing hate rally rather than a symposium of “ordinary citizens.”

“Deep Throat” once advised Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to follow the money. Questions remain as to where, exactly, NARKN gets its funding. NARKN officials say they get donations from sympathetic people around the country, which is true, but not the whole story. Unfortunately, no Japanese investigative reporters have aggressively pursued this question. A few tabloid media have long alleged, without proof, that NARKN receives funding not only from shadowy fringe right-wing or “patriot” groups, but also from larger, more established, influential organizations like the shadowy Izokukai, or War Bereaved Families Association, which supports a number of traditional right-wing causes and still retains a large amount of clout in the Diet.

Evidence presented in support of this latter claim is completely speculative but intriguing and at least worthy of investigation. But the truth about the funding of both the abductees’ families group and their supporters remains hidden. A public audit, to say nothing of a media investigation, of NARKN’s funding, is desperately needed. Given the current political strength of NARKN, such an audit or investigation is not going to happen anytime soon. As of mid-2004, only a few journalists, and few public officials, have suggested such an audit.

Koizumi’s visit to North Korea in 2002 made history. As his follow up visit in May, 2004, showed, it did not end the abduction issue, but, rather, raised new sets of domestic political questions. However strong the prime minister’s desire to be seen as an international statesman dealing with larger issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program, in the end, he is elected by ordinary voters with local concerns. That those “local” concerns may now include the abduction issue and Japan’s diplomatic relationship with North Korea is something that Japanese politicians involved in diplomacy, an art traditionally practiced in the shadows, will have to consider far more carefully or run the risk of being voted out of office. And that is the fundamental truth that those in the international community who remain puzzled and frustrated as to why Japan’s politicians are making such a fuss over the issue need to consider before dismissing the abduction issue as, merely, local politics.

ERIC JOHNSTON is deputy editor at The Japan Times’s Osaka bureau and a resident of Japan since 1988. He has been a journalist since 1991 and has covered the abduction issue since September 2000. He would like to thank The Japan Times, especially editor-in-chief Yutaka Mataebara and editors Takeshi Kitazume and Mari Koseki, for their support and encouragement in covering the abduction issue over the years. He is currently writing a book on Japan’s nuclear power industry that will be published by Parlor Press in the United States in July, 2005. This monograph was originally published by Smallworld Press in April, 2003, under the title The Abduction Issue and its Effect on Japan’s Domestic Politics, and in Japanese as Nihonjin rachi mondai ga Nihon no Kokunaiseiji ni ataeru eikyou. The English version has been updated and expanded for JPRI.

Copyright © Eric Johnston. No portion of this monograph may be used without the express written consent of the author, who welcomes comments and feedback at

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