By Kate Allanson Conlon,PhD Candidate at the University of Central Lancashire and Associate Researcher at the Northern England Policy Centre for the Asia Pacific (NEPCAP)
Prior to 2002, the idea that Japanese nationals were once abducted and transported back to North Korea was labelled as a conspiracy theory by the Kim regime. This was until the Japan-North Korea summit meeting held in Pyongyang on September 17, 2002. The Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had hoped for three outcomes: for North Korea to agree they will no longer seek compensation and reparations, but rather economic cooperation; for North Korea to pledge to maintain international agreements on its nuclear programme and the moratorium on its missile testing programme; and finally, for North Korea to acknowledge the 1970s and 1980s abductions of Japanese nationals (Hughes, 2002, p.61). Few people expected North Korea to formally acknowledge their crimes, making the events of the summit and of the months to follow even more astounding.
‘An Appalling Incident’
Despite previous efforts to debunk rumours of North Korean involvement in the abduction of Japanese nationals, Kim Jong Il chose to instead admit North Korean involvement in the abductions. During the Japan-North Korea summit meeting, Kim condemned the abductions as ‘an appalling incident … initiated by special-mission organisations in the 1970s and 80s, driven by blindly motivated patriotism and misguided heroism’ (Boynton, 2015). It seems the North Korean government felt this explanation would suit both parties. For the Japanese, they would finally have an answer to the ‘abduction issue’, with the families of the victims either reunited with their loved one or in receipt of closure knowing they are no longer alive. For the North Koreans, they are able to resolve the issue under the pretence that it was individuals working independently from the Kim regime who committed these crimes, meaning the regime is not at fault and the normalisation of Japan-North Korea relations can continue. Koizumi had hoped to return to Japan triumphantly, having finally extracted an admission of guilt from the North Korean leader and taken a step towards the normalisation of bilateral relations. However, in reality, media and public outrage over the admission had only made the possibility of normalised relations more unlikely. North Korea admitted to the abduction of 13 Japanese nationals, eight of whom were dead with the remaining five alive and living in North Korea. Those living were Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto who disappeared in July 1978, Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo who also disappeared in July 1978, and Hitomi Soga who disappeared along with her mother in August 1978. Koizumi’s mission was now to facilitate the repatriation of these abductees.
On October 15, 2002, North Korea allowed the five abductees to return home to Japan, where they were reunited with family members who they had not seen for decades. All five abductees chose to remain in Japan with the government of Japan urging North Korea to also ensure the safe return of their families who still resided in North Korea, these family members included spouses and children. By July 18, 2004, North Korea had returned the three children of the Chimura family, two children of the Hasuike family and the husband and two children of Hitomi Soga. Following their admission of guilt and repatriation of five abductees, North Korea now considered the issue closed. What was intended to be a gesture of honesty and good will by the North Korean government completely backfired, leading only to further hostilities between the two nations. By October 2003, opinion polls communicated that concerns over the abduction issue among the Japanese had increased to 90.1 percent, while concerns about the North Korean nuclear programme had also increased to 66.3 percent (DiFilippo, 2013, p.143). In addition, the ascension of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to power only fuelled Japanese resentment over the abduction issue, with Abe vowing to make the abduction issue his life’s work (Siripala, 2022).
Is There a Way Forward?
Over two decades on from the events of 2002, for the Japanese the issue remains unsolved with many questions still unanswered. Despite North Korea declaring their commitment to resuming investigations into the abductions at the second Japan-North Korea summit meeting in 2004, Japan feels Pyongyang is yet to provide acceptable explanations for the remaining abductees. Declaring that ‘the abduction of Japanese citizens is a critical issue concerning the sovereignty of Japan and the lives and safety of Japanese citizens’ and that ‘without the resolution of this issue, there can be no normalization of relations between Japan and North Korea’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 2022). While current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has vowed he is willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to resolve the issue, there has been no progress (Yamaguchi, 2022). Calls for answers over the issue have only intensified in recent years, as parents and family members of the abductees reach old age with the fear they will never truly know what happened to their loved ones.
Japan has tried to incentivise North Korea into opening a formal investigation into the abductions by promising to ease sanctions. This approach proved successful with North Korea opening a formal investigation from 2014 to 2016. However, North Koreas continued nuclear testing meant Japan was forced to reverse its easing of sanction, effectively clearing the slate on all the previous progress made on the issue (Siripala, 2022). It seems a resolution to the abduction issue and the normalisation of relations with Japan is low on the North Korean agenda. This may be as a result of their stance that the issue was resolved following their admission of guilt and repatriation of five abductees in October 2002. Until both countries either agree that more investigation is needed surrounding the abduction issue or that the abduction issue is resolved, it is unlikely that the proper normalisation of Japan-North Korea relations can occur. However, with the abductions still in living memory and the continued campaigning led by the parents and family members of abductees, it seems unlikely the Japanese government could agree the issue is resolved without significant public outcry.
Boynton, R. S. (2015) North Korea’s Abduction Project. The New Yorker. 21 December 2015. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/north-koreas-abduction-project (Accessed 27 March 2023).
DiFilippo, A. (2013). Still at Odds: The Japanese Abduction Issue and North Korea’s Circumvention. UNISCI discussion papers. no. 32.
Hughes, C. W. (2002) Japan-North Korea Relations from the North-South Summit to the Koizumi-Kim Summit. Asia-Pacific Review. 9 (2), pp.61–78.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (2022) Abductions of Japanese Citizens by North Korea. Available at https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/n_korea/abduction/index.html (Accessed 27 March 2023).
Siripala, T. (2022) Abe Shinzo and the North Korean Abduction Issue. The Diplomat. 28 September 2022. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2022/09/abe-shinzo-and-the-north-korean-abduction-issue/ (Accessed 28 March 2023).
Yamaguchi, M. (2022) EXPLAINER: Why Were Japanese Abducted by North Korea?. AP News. 24 May 2022. Available at: https://apnews.com/article/biden-japan-north-korea-government-and-politics-094e087cadbd6fd571f59c1c4bc102e0 (Accessed 28 March 2023).