IT WAS A YEAR AGO this month that North Korea, in the midst of normalization talks with Japan, dropped a major bombshell: During the late 1970s, North Korean agents infiltrated Japan's west coast and abducted 11 men and women--though Kim Jong Il claims he knew nothing about it at the time. "I guarantee that those involved will be punished, and we will prevent any future occurrence," vowed the Maximum Leader. "I will also ensure that families will see each other and they can return to Japan."
The North Koreans now acknowledge that 15--not 11--civilians were abducted, but claim that only 5 are still alive. And thanks to the infinite mercy of Kim Jong Il, who called the incident "regrettable," those five were allowed to see their families in Japan last October. The North Korean government, however, didn't mean the victims could be permanently reunited with their families. They wanted them returned to Pyongyang after two weeks. In other words, the kidnappers (who didn't know anything about the kidnapping) were willing to part with their abductees--but only temporarily.
During those tense weeks, the Japanese government asked Pyongyang to set up another meeting and that the abductees be allowed to bring their North Korean families. (Over the course of their abduction, several of the victims started families in North Korea.) When the Koreans failed to respond, the five abductees decided it was best to remain in Japan. The Koreans considered this a breach of contract, saying, "The Japanese side reneged on an undertaking to return the five victims to North Korea and the Japanese should therefore first return the five to North Korea."
A YEAR LATER, the stalemate continues--and the call for information on the Japanese abductees who supposedly died in North Korea is growing.
When I first reported on the kidnappings, I met with Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister, Rumiko, was kidnapped in 1978. He had been told that she died in 1981 of heart disease, despite the fact that she would have been just 27 years old. Adding to the mystery, her death certificate was riddled with errors.
The National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) is trying to shine light on Masumoto's case and others like it. Twin brothers Tetsuya and Takuya Yokota have a sister, Megumi, who was abducted in 1977 as she was on her way home from badminton practice. She was only 13 years old. "Our sister's case was first investigated as a potential kidnapping," says Takuya, "but police found very little evidence." After a series of defections by North Korean agents, however, the brothers learned their sister was one of the abductees. "We believe that our sister had some involvement with the North Korean intelligence community, probably teaching Japanese," Takuya says. The North Koreans claim Megumi committed suicide in 1993 but have no body to return. They say her grave was washed away in a flood.
A similar flood also supposedly prevented the return of the remains of Yaeko Taguchi, who was kidnapped in 1978, leaving two small children behind. "Out of the blue, my sister disappeared," says Yaeko's brother, Shigeo Iizuka. "For the next few months, my family and I thought that maybe she decided to take a trip for personal reasons she could not share with us. But as time went on, our concerns grew much larger." In 1987, a North Korean agent convicted in the bombing of a Korean Airlines jet said Yaeko, with the Korean name Lee Un-Hae, was his language instructor. Pyongyang denies she taught Japanese to their agents and says she was killed in a traffic accident in 1986.
Some remains have been returned to Japan. In nearly every case forensic evidence has shown that the bodies are not those of abductees. In many cases, they're not even the right gender. Death certificates bear incorrect birth dates and, suspiciously, their stamps are all from the same hospital, even though the victims allegedly died in different parts of the country.
Why would the North Koreans want to keep the abductees' whereabouts a secret?
"This is nothing more than hostage diplomacy," says Takuya Yokota. "North Korea is trying to draw out some kind of economic assistance or other kind of aid from our government using our family as hostage." Shigeo Iizuka agrees: "Pyongyang still considers the abductees one of their negotiation cards. They are trying to maximize their bargaining position in order to extract some other concession."
North Korea's national security could be at stake too. According to Yoichi Shimada, vice chairman of NARKN, "Some of the abductees were forced to teach North Korean spies the Japanese language and how to act Japanese. These abductees know the faces of these spies--many of whom could still be operating in Japan and South Korea." Adds Takuya, "If North Korea released our sister and others, they could expose Pyongyang's intelligence network."
So what can Japan and the United States do to bring about the return of all the families? "If we can financially squeeze North Korea," says Yoichi Shimada, "then we can make things worse and worse for Kim Jong Il and his henchmen. Hopefully this would lead to a coup or an internal collapse." Shimada does not mince words: "I have come to the conclusion that regime change is the only way to solve the abduction issue completely." Takuya is just as adamant: "The victims should be returned without conditions. That is the only position for North Korea to accept. We also think that not only Japan but also China, South Korea, and the United States should impose strong economic pressure."
Yet it is far from certain that the Japanese government will adopt such a strong policy--in part because of a wariness of how North Korea might react. And according to one staffer on the House Asia subcommittee, "There is not much else Japan can do frankly. They just have no strings to pull. For several years now, the Japanese have not provided humanitarian assistance to North Korea. And in indirect ways, Japan and the United States have made it more difficult for North Korean goods to enter Japan. That said, if the issue is to be resolved, it will be done in conjunction with the nuclear issue." Nevertheless, he says that solidarity can be increased as well as an awareness that "this is not just a Japanese issue, but rather a civilizational issue. It is appalling what this regime is doing." An official at the State Department agrees: "This fits into the whole range of egregious actions by the North Korean regime. We need to apply pressure on them on all fronts, from weapons of mass destruction to human rights."
"We simply hope that our visit to the United States will help remind Americans that North Korea is truly a terror regime," says Tetsuya Yokota. "It deserves global attention and will require global pressure to resolve this." Back in Japan, the sense of outrage grows by the day, and NARKN's Yoichi Shimada is leading the charge: "In Japan, we are demanding more action, even if unilaterally. Our slogan is very simple: Abduction is terrorism."
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard
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