Fresh hope for Japanese abductees

In the top right-hand corner of the television screen, a grainy black-and-white image of Yaeko Taguchi watches, her face caught in a half-smile from a quarter of a century ago.

An annual reception in Tokyo for North Koreans in Japan
An annual reception in Tokyo for North Koreans in Japan

The rest of the screen – beamed into millions of Japanese homes this week – relates the tale of her disappearance in June 1978, the frantic attempts of her family to trace her and the utter shock they felt in 1987 when they discovered her fate.

Nine years after Taguchi vanished, South Korean authorities seized a North Korean agent travelling on a Japanese passport after putting a bomb aboard a Korean Air passenger plane, killing 115 people.

Kim Hyon Hui’s accomplice managed to commit suicide, but Kim cooperated with her captors and revealed that she had learned the Japanese language and mannerisms from Taguchi.

Quite how Taguchi, then 23, was physically abducted in 1978, when she was working in a Tokyo bar, may never be known, but the North Korean government finally admitted, on 17 September 2002, that its agents had forcibly taken her to Pyongyang.

Ministerial meeting

On that date, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to a summit in Pyongyang for Kim Jong Il, who handed over a list of 13 Japanese nationals who had been seized and smuggled out of their homeland, usually aboard fishing boats that were met off remote beaches in northern Japan.

Prime Minister Koizumi will make a second trip to North Korea

Prime Minister Koizumi will make
a second trip to North Korea

Kim even gave a thin apology for the actions of his government’s agents, but added that of the 13, eight had since died. Taguchi was among those that were listed as dead.

On 22 May, Koizumi is scheduled to return to Pyongyang and he is expected to meet the eight relatives of the five Japanese who were abducted but allowed to pay what was described at the time as a brief homecoming visit to Japan in October 2002.

Japan and North Korea have been playing hardball over the fate of the eight, seven children and the American-born husband of Hitomi Soga.

Tokyo is demanding that Pyongyang unconditionally allow them to come to Japan, while Kim Jong Il’s government complains that Tokyo broke a promise to return the five after a week-long visit.

Face off

But, after 18 months of stubborn stalemate, was Japan the first to blink?

During his trip, Koizumi is scheduled to hold summit talks with Kim, although a visit to the North could prove a double edged-sword.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il

Pyongyang can be counted on to squeeze as much political mileage as possible out of the Japanese leader travelling to meet Kim for a second time.

But securing the freedom of the eight would be a spectacular coup for which Koizumi would be long remembered, and particularly useful with an election for the upper house of the Diet coming up in July.

There is also the possibility, however remote, that even if he does go to Pyongyang in the expectation of returning with the eight, he may still come home empty-handed.


The carrot of humanitarian aid, including food and medical supplies, has also been dangled in front of North Korean officials in recent meetings, along with more talks on the resumption of normalisation talks between the two nations.

According to the Asahi newspaper, 250,000 tons of rice will be shipped to North Korea if there is progress in the upcoming talks.

And while the five returnees – Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, Kaoru Hasuike and his wife Yukiko and Hitomi Soga – are desperate to be reunited with their families, a spokesman for the five pointed out that there is a bigger picture to consider.

“We want the eight family members back immediately and in
good health”

Shigeo Yamashita,
National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

“We want the eight family members back immediately and in good health, but even then there is the bigger problem of the other people that have disappeared over the years,” said Shigeo Yamashita, of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea.

The association has drawn up a list of more than 100 Japanese people who have vanished in unusual circumstances and is pressuring the government to demand answers from North Korea.

“Even if the eight are released, we will not be satisfied,” he said. “For example, what could we say to the family of Miho Yamamoto?” Ms Yamamoto, then 20, disappeared in 1984 from Yamanashi prefecture.

“We fear that if Mr Koizumi goes to Pyongyang and signs some sort of agreement, the government will not care about the fate of the other abductees,” said Kazuhiro Araki, another senior member of the association.

“The families themselves are very worried and quite pessimistic that anything positive will come out of these recent proposals,” he added. “They believe that the only way to get North Korea to listen to their calls for the families to be released is through pressure.”

Information sought

Japan has demanded additional information on the fate of the eight who died, as well as three other Japanese nationals whose disappearances are considered suspicious, but Pyongyang insists the matter is closed.

Relations between the two nations are, at best, strained, thanks to reports that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and advanced ballistic missiles with which to deliver them.

In 1998, Pyongyang caused a security alert when a medium-range ballistic missile was fired over Japan’s northern-most island before splashing down in the Pacific.

And a report released in early May by the Japan Coast Guard, which states that fully 35% of the narcotics that it seized last year can be traced back to North Korean sources will also have done little to generate goodwill among the Japanese public.

But Koizumi may be ready to put a history that has been fraught since Japan colonised the Korean peninsula in the 1930s – and which Pyongyang remains indignant at – behind him in his quest to bring home the abductees’ families.  

Risky strategy 

Most Japanese believe it is a huge gamble.

“Mr Koizumi should take care not to repeat mistakes from his previous visit that possibly gave North Korea the idea that the abduction issue had already been resolved,” the left-leaning Asahi newspaper stated in an editorial.

The Chongryun organisation hasclose links with Pyongyang

The Chongryun organisation has
close links with Pyongyang

“The prime minister must clearly show Kim that a genuine investigation is just beginning.”

Of all the players with a stake in the outcome of the talks, perhaps the North Korean community in Japan most closely reflects the attitude of the leadership in Pyongyang to the latest discussions.

“We have been watching the talks carefully but coolly,” said So Chung-on, a spokesman for Chongryun, which has close ties with Pyongyang.

“The talks have been deeper than before and both countries, but especially Japan, have little by little become more serious about the situation concerning relations between the two countries.

“It really all depends on Japan’s attitude, whether they have the mind to deal with past history and push ahead with the normalisation talks,” he said. “If those talks go ahead in a good atmosphere, then the abduction issue will naturally be solved.”

And that could mean the answer to the question of whether Yaeko Taguchi, Megumi Yokota, Tadaaki Hara, Yutaka Kume, Rumiko Matsumoto and all the others are still alive. And when they are coming home.

Source: Al Jazeera

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