North Korea’s Abductions and Abe’s Politics of Justice
Image Credit: REUTERS/Issei Kato

North Korea’s Abductions and Abe’s Politics of Justice


In May, North Korean officials meeting with their Japanese counterparts in Stockholm, Sweden, announced that they would carry out a comprehensive, nationwide survey of all Japanese abductees currently living in North Korea. In return, the Japanese government agreed to lift a number of sanctions currently in place against the DPRK, allowing for the renewal of remittances that had previously flowed from Japan to North Korea, and end a movement ban between the two countries. This rather stunning agreement has raised hopes for a resolution to an issue that has bedeviled relations between the two nations for decades.

Since 2002, when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il first admitted to then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during a summit meeting that Japanese citizens had been kidnapped by covert agents, little progress has been made on the abductee issue. While Tokyo has continued to demand that the North come forth with more information on the fate of hundreds of individuals believed taken from Japan, it has been met with continued stonewalling on the part of a North Korean regime that believes itself hard done by at having let purportedly billions of dollars in reparations slip through its hands.

Despite the long-running impasse, the government of Shinzo Abe, who served as Koizumi’s deputy during the Pyongyang summit, has decided to revive the discussion. In the process, he is staking considerable political capital by engaging with a negotiating partner that can, at best, be described as unreliable. In some quarters, this move has been regarded as a big political gamble. Yet it could also be seen as providing the necessary impetus to bring closure to what has, for many Japanese, become an emotional issue with a resolution that is long overdue.

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Disregarding for a moment the considerable pitfalls that come from dealing with the notoriously capricious North Korean regime, a major challenge for the Abe administration will come on the domestic front, as it grapples with the problem of defining the scope of what exactly constitutes an abducted citizen. In October 2002, Kim claimed that North Korean agents, operating without his knowledge, had abducted 13 Japanese, five from Europe and the remaining eight from the shores of Japan. For its part, a Japanese government spokesman recently stated that as many as 860 individuals were believed to have been kidnapped.

This official estimate may have well been an effort by the Abe administration to tamp down expectations, as civic groups within Japan have been striving to link the coastal kidnappings of Japanese to the movement of approximately 6,500 Japanese spouses who immigrated to North Korea with their Zainichi Korean husbands as part of the International Red Cross sponsored Repatriation Movement. The repatriations, which ran from 1959-1984, were organized at the Japanese end by North Korea’s de facto embassy, Chongryon, or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, with the help of the Japanese government. The Soviet Union, at the request of the Red Cross, provided the two large passenger ships that were used as transportation for those “repatriating” to a country they had never before seen.

Since the late 1990s, when the abduction issue in Japan initially picked up momentum, Japanese activists and academics have been working to raise public awareness of Japanese who willingly went to North Korea, but were then not permitted to return. In some cases, this has included helping to ferry out “refugees” from North Korea to Japan, with the knowledge of the Japanese  Foreign Ministry. Leaders of two of the largest and most active civic groups working to bring back Japanese who went North through the repatriation movement, Dr. Bunmei Yamada and Kotarou Miurasan, argue that Japanese citizens living in North Korea are in fact hostages, and as such, the Japanese government should tie the issue of “repatriated” Japanese to the coastal abductions.

The voices of those lobbying for the return of repatriated Japanese received a boost earlier this year with the release of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report detailing North Korean human rights abuses. Regarding “Abductions and enforced disappearances from other countries,” the report states,

“Despite admitting to the abduction of 13 Japanese nationals by agents of the State, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has never adequately disavowed the practice of international abductions.”

Perhaps most pertinent for these groups in Japan is a claim in the report that of some 200,000 persons forcibly disappeared by the DPRK, “the vast majority of abductions and enforced disappearances are linked to the Korean War and the organized movement of ethnic Koreans from Japan that started in 1959.” While it would not come as a surprise that a high number of individuals went missing from both sides during the Korean War, the specific mention of the repatriation movement as either an “abduction” or “enforced disappearance” has brought a new dimension to the issue.

Seventy-three-year-old Hiroko Saito was the wife of one of the roughly 93,000 Zainichi Koreans and Japanese who immigrated to North Korea as part of the Repatriation Movement. Since her return to Japan from North Korea some ten years ago, she has been campaigning for redress for what her, and many other Japanese spouses who made the same doomed journey, consider as an injustice that destroyed their lives and the lives of their family. With eyes that shine brightly behind gold-rimmed glasses, Saito’s smile belies the hardships she has faced since her “repatriation” to North Korea, some fifty years earlier.

“I’m Japanese, so I didn’t need to go to North Korea. One day, representatives from Chongryon came to my husband’s house and talked to him and his family about going to North Korea. My husband’s father, a Zainichi Korean, decided to go and I went with the family. Chongryon officials told me that I would be able to return after three years, this is what gave my parents comfort and why they gave me permission to go. Of course, they lied,” Saito explained, in a hodgepodge of Japanese and North Korean-accented Korean.

Zainichi Koreans in Japan, the overwhelming majority of whom were originally from Jeju Island, off the south coast of the Korean peninsula, were called upon by North Korean-driven Chongryon propaganda to migrate to “Heaven on Earth” and contribute to the rebuilding of the fatherland. At the time, North Korea looked to be a better option to either enduring persecution as foreigners in Japan (Zainichi Koreans were stripped of their Japanese citizenship in 1952), or returning to South Korea and facing the possibility of political persecution under the dictatorship of the U.S backed-leader Syngman Rhee.

For many of those who boarded the Soviet Kyl’ion or the Tobol’sk and set sail under the watchful eye of Russian troops, or, from 1971, the North Korean Mangyongbong, arrival in North Korea was the beginning of years of hardship. Struggling with the contradictory burden of being an economic elite, but also at the bottom of the North Korean political caste system, many Zainichi Koreans suffered greatly in “paradise.” Saito explains:

“When we got settled in our new home, my husband worked as an optometrist and I tried my best to give him good food to eat. But it was all so hard there. There wasn’t any running water and it was always so cold. I would trade whatever my family in Japan sent me to get the food we needed. Then my husband died, then my two sons died,” Saito recounts, no longer able to hold back her tears.

For many of the new arrivals, the journey across the Sea of Japan may as well have occurred in a time machine. They had gone from a nation on the cusp of an economic miracle which would transform Japan into the second largest economy in the world, to a country struggling to recover from the complete destruction of the 1950-1953 Korean War. Many new arrivals from Japan would spend days on trains traveling to their new homes, only to be allocated apartments half complete and without basic facilities. The Japanese spouses, discriminated against by the “native” North Koreans, found comfort in their shared pariah status, speaking Japanese with each other in secret while surviving on aid parcels sent from family and friends in Japan.

For Saito, now working part time on a strawberry farm outside Kyoto, run by an NGO that assists Japanese returnees, the possibility that she could again see the return of family members remaining in North Korea has given her an added incentive to continue the activism that now takes up most of her days. The renewed negotiations by her government have convinced Saito and a handful of other Japanese, returned through the efforts of individuals such as activist and academic, Dr. Yamada, Director of the NGO Mamurakai, that the time has come to bring this issue to a final resolution.

It is the drive and determination of people like Saito and Dr. Yamada that could pose a potential problem for the Abe government, however. For these individuals, it will not be enough for North Korea to simply hand over a list of Japanese living inside its borders; those still alive should also be given the choice to come back home, and families separated by the repatriation movement should have the opportunity to reunite. For Dr. Yamada and a few other dedicated Japanese running NGOs based primarily in Tokyo and Osaka, this is a chance for redemption for people who once looked to the DPRK as an example to follow in the region. Over a coffee in the lounge area of Osaka University, Dr. Yamada explained:

“At that time, during the 1960s, we had such hope for North Korea. It seemed like a true hope for those of us who, as young academics, believed in the socialist movement. We truly thought it would be a good thing to go to North Korea and, at that time, I thought to myself that if I was Korean, I would have gone as well.”

Yet this stance is not one the Abe administration will be anxious to embrace. Imagine, for a moment, that North Korea did take stock of every person who had come from Japan from 1959 to 1984, their children and their children’s children, or even if they only attempted to record those of Japanese ethnicity. Then, in consultation with the Japanese government, those who wanted were given the chance to move back to Japan. It is likely the Japanese public would be up in arms at the influx of tens of thousands of individuals, most of whom wouldn’t be able to speak Japanese, would have no skills relevant to a modern, industrialized society and would be immediately in need of state support to help establish new lives in Japan. This is not to mention the very real possibility that among those thousands of re-repatriated Japanese, there would likely be individuals employed by the North Korean state to collect information on Japanese society.

The challenges that such a mass movement of people from North Korea to Japan would present for the government make such an undertaking a long reach for Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, and provide insight into why the government has currently pegged the number of abductions at under 1,000, a far more manageable figure for both the Japanese and North Korean governments with which to work. In a shrewd political maneuver, the Abe government may have succeeded in splitting the difference between the demands of its own populace for a full accounting on the abduction issue, while allowing the North Koreans with a face-saving out, particularly in light of the far more damning accusations contained in the COI report.

Two important questions now remain: will the North Korean government, having uncharacteristically botched diplomatic efforts at using this issue to extract billions the last time around, be more willing to cooperate on this occasion? And will Abe be able to placate those civic groups now demanding an expanded definition of what constitutes an abductee?

One important fact being overlooked is that by simply addressing the issue, Abe may have already placed himself in a win-win situation. The abduction question will help define his time in office and is a useful morally unambiguous goal to pursue while he controversially takes apart Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Success on the abduction issue could further his already strong support in a country in which national leaders come and go on a revolving door basis. On the other hand, failure to bring home disappeared Japanese could be easily blamed on an intransigent government in Pyongyang. Coupled with the souring of relations with the Chinese, South Koreans, and an already unhappy U.S. that the process would entail, this could be used by Abe to further convince the Japanese public that they are surrounded by hostile neighbors, and as a matter of self-preservation, would justify the push to the right and a strengthening of the nation’s military – the other Abe’s legacy defining projects.

As North Korea continues its survey of repatriated Japanese and Abe’s government holds meetings with civic groups in Tokyo, thousands of families across Japan are given a glimmer of hope that they will be reunited with loved ones trapped inside North Korea. For Saito and other Japanese recently escaped from North Korea, these discussions will be the first of many that determine if they will ever see their siblings, sons, daughters, and grandchildren again. For those who stayed in Japan, waving goodbye to brothers and sisters at Niigata port some forty years ago, it may represent their last chance to see faces that have faded, but have not been forgotten.

Markus Bell is a PhD candidate in the anthropology department of The Australian National University. He currently resides in Osaka, Japan, where he is researching on North Korean defectors in Japan, and the abductee issue. He can be contacted through

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