Twenty years since North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese citizens, the issue remains unresolved, and families are still waiting for answers.
Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who sought to resolve the issue through both dialogue and pressure, became a “friend” to the families of abductees during his eight years in office. But now local media are reporting that Abe rejected a North Korean proposal to return two Japanese nationals held in Pyongyang between 2014 and 2015.
Several officials involved in the negotiation process say Abe was concerned that North Korea would attempt to close the book on the abductions with the return of the two Japanese nationals. Moreover, North Korea was offering their “temporary return,” and there were concerns that the two men would not stay in Japan as they reportedly have wives and children in North Korea.
This is the first time the proposal for the temporary return of abductees has come to light. Abe took a hardline approach toward North Korea but also garnered a reputation for “tirelessly” raising the international profile of the Japanese abductees. Abe vowed to make the abduction issue his “life’s work.” When he announced his resignation in 2020 he expressed regret over being unable to bring closure to the families.
Yokota Takuya, the younger brother of Yokota Megumi, who was kidnapped in 1977 at age 13, heads a group representing the families of the abducted victims. He said he was at a loss for words over Abe’s assassination and publicly thanked Abe for reaching out to the international community about the issue.
Between 1977 and 1983, North Korean agents posting as Japanese citizens abducted an unknown number of Japanese citizens. In September 2002, North Korea admitted to abducting Japanese citizens and apologized. Five abducted Japanese nationals returned to Japan and were reunited with their families. The Japanese government has formally recognized the abduction of 17 Japanese nationals, of which 12 cases remained unresolved. The actual number of abductees is thought to be in the hundreds.
Abe made a political name for himself as the champion of the abductees and their families. In 2006, during his first stint as prime minster, the Abe administration sought to politicize the abductions issue, which fomented anti-North Korean sentiment across Japan. Abe created a campaign to raise awareness of the abductions by printing pamphlets and sending them to embassies around the world. North Korea criticized the Japanese government for pushing bilateral relations into a state of confrontation and argued that the direction of relations depends entirely on the attitude of the Japanese government.
During his second term, Abe tried a different approach. Based on the Stockholm Agreement of 2014, Japan agreed to ease sanctions in exchange for investigations into the whereabouts of Japanese abductees. But Pyongyang ceased investigations after Japan reimposed sanctions in 2016 in reaction to a North Korean nuclear test and missile launch. Japan maintains that North Korea has an obligation to complete investigations into the whereabouts of the Japanese abductees under the Stockholm Agreement. North Korea, however, sees Japanese sanctions as effectively clearing the slate on all the previous progress made on the issue.
Abe’s hardline stance on the abduction issue – including increasing unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang as well as attempt to garner international pressure – promoted North Korea to take a tough position toward Japan in the years following 2014. Distrust between Japan and North Korea grew to its highest level. In 2019 Abe had a change of heart, saying he is willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “without pre-conditions.” But North Korea showed no signs of coming back to the negotiating table.
When Prime Minister Kishida Fumio came to power last October, he vowed to lead the effort to resolve the abduction issue. As families of abductees grow older, they are becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress. Last week, speaking at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Kishida expressed regret at the lack of resolution and followed in Abe’s footsteps by saying he is “determined to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un without any conditions.”
At the same time, Kishida has called on the United States to help intensify pressure on North Korea. During a Japan-U.S. Summit in Tokyo, President Joe Biden met with families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea to show his support and the Japan-U.S. joint statement “reaffirmed U.S commitment to the immediate resolution of the abductions issue.” He urged North Korea to correct the “historic wrongs” of past abductions.
Japan’s security situation has deteriorated further since Abe was in power on account of North Korea’s expanding military buildup and accelerating spate of missile and nuclear testing. The families of abductees are calling for the Kishida administration to formulate a fresh approach to break the deadlock. Some experts are urging Kishida to view the rescue of the abductees as a humanitarian issue.