Japan Demands End to North Korean Human Rights Abuses
International concerns over the violations of human rights by North Korea took center stage at an overflowing in Tokyo on December 15, 2018. Hosted by the Government of Japan, the symposium raised public awareness as it explored the pain inflicted on victims and their families by the abductions and other grave human abuses by North Korea.
Driving the point home, it was also broadcast directly into North Korea in both Japanese and Korean.
Abe Administration All-Out Effort
The event capped a year of extraordinary efforts by the Abe administration at home and abroad to raise international awareness of human rights abuses by North Korea. Prime Minister Abe seeks full resolution of the abductions issue of Japanese citizens whose return is a necessary first step to pave the way for the economic aid North Korea needs to improve the conditions of its own citizens.
This has put Japan in the forefront of the drive to end the North Korea’s human rights abuses of individuals of all nationalities.
In order to bring an end to the North’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, human rights are another inseparable third prong that must be resolved to end the North Korea’s abhorrent violations of basic international norms.
Forty Years of Abductions and Terror
North Korea has been carrying out a campaign of state-sponsored terrorism for more than forty years. Beginning in the 1970s, North Korean agents began infiltrating Japan, South Korea, China, and other nations in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The goal was to abduct citizens of various countries for the chief purpose of forcing the abducted native speakers of foreign languages to teach language and culture to North Korean spies-in-training.
The Government of Japan has identified 17 Japanese citizens as having been abducted by North Korea. These include the cases of Yaeko Taguchi, who was abducted in 1978 leaving behind two infants, and Megumi Yokota, who was 13 years old when kidnapped on her way home from school by North Korean agents. Both women, and many of the other twelve who have not returned, are thought to have worked in sensitive areas that the regime wants to keep secret. In addition, there are more than other 800 cases of missing persons in which the possibility of abduction by North Korea cannot be ruled out.
Though five of the abductees returned to Japan shortly after the 2002 Pyongyang summit, at least twelve others identified by the Government of Japan were left behind in North Korea. There have been thousands of South Koreans abducted over the decades of a divided peninsula, and victims of abduction by North Korea are not only from Japan, but also believed to be from other countries in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
In 1987, North Korean terrorist and intelligence operative Kim Hyon-hui was arrested after bringing down Korean Air flight 858 with a bomb that she and her male accomplice—who had been disguising as a husband and wife from Japan—left on board the plane during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. Handed over to the South Korean authorities, Kim confessed her crimes.
She also proved to be the break in some of the hundreds of unsolved cases in Japan of Japanese who suddenly and mysteriously disappeared without a trace. According to Kim, she had been taught Japanese language and customs by a Japanese woman called Lee Un-hae, who likely is Yaeko Taguchi, and Megumi Yokota was seen in the same training compound.
Japan confronted North Korea with its crimes in 2002 when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, together with then-Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, traveled to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with then-Chairman Kim Jong-Il. To everyone’s surprise, he admitted that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens and agreed to return five of them.
However, there has been no progress on the cases of the other twelve abduction victims identified by the Government of Japan, or those of more than 800 missing persons in which the possibility of abduction by North Korea cannot be ruled out.
Reaching Out to International Victims
During the past years, the Abe administration focused its efforts intensely on the issue of human rights abuses by North Korea. It became an integrated all-of-government effort that reached out to the families of the victims and the international community, including initiatives with the UN. The Prime Minister himself pressed for support on the issue in meetings with world leaders.
The Japanese government in 2018 reached out to the Warmbier family, whose son passed away soon after released in a comatose state from seventeen-month detention by the North Korean regime. The Warmbiers were invited to participate in a May 3 symposium at the United Nations organized by the Government of Japan and met family members of Japanese abduction victims. Both sides recognized the common pain inflicted by North Korea’s abuse of their loved ones, and both committed to participating in the December 15 symposium.
The December symposium also provided the Government of Japan an opportunity to introduce the Warmbiers to the family of another American – David Sneddon – who remains missing in a case believed to be abducted by North Korea. Although both families are American, it was their first time to meet.
Fully Committed to Ending Abuses
The December 15 event presented a microcosm of the Japanese government’s 2018’s initiatives, bringing together school children and talented adults, experts from Japan and overseas and family members of victims on the issue of human rights in North Korea.
Yoshihide Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue led off, voicing the government’s strong commitment on the issues of abductions and other human rights abuses by North Korea.
He referred to the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which pointed out that many of the human rights violations in North Korea are equivalent to “crimes against humanity” and that “the gravity, scale, and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” In the COI report, he said, the abductions by North Korea are positioned as one of the “serious human rights violations” and the report raises suspicion that the victims are not only from South Korea and Japan, but also from other Asian and European countries. Especially in Japan, 17 abductees are identified by the government and there are more than 800 additional cases of missing Japanese for whom the possibility of abduction by North Korea cannot be ruled out.
The theme was later taken up by many of the other symposium participants who spoke to the regime’s ongoing, systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights on the Korean peninsula and far beyond.
The Viewpoint of Schoolchildren
The first part of the December 15 program highlighted the Japanese government’s outreach to a younger generation about the history of abductions of young people by North Korea. It brought together Japanese junior high and high school students who participated in a nationwide, government-sponsored essay contest on the abductions issue.
Three Japanese middle school and three high school students were commended for their outstanding essays. The young writers displayed an ability to imagine themselves in the same situation as Megumi Yokota, abducted when she was 13, and their essays appealed to the hearts and souls of all parents in the room.
Their participation in the contest raised awareness about North Korea’s abduction activities among the young people of Japan. At the same time, it reminded the audience of the many generations affected by Pyongyang’s terrorizing behavior.
The same essay contest was held in 2017, but this year the number of entries was more than twice as many as last year. This is a good sign that the Japanese government’s efforts are working.
Voices of the Victims’ Families
Part two of the event first brought a panel giving voice to the pain and suffering of the victims and their families. The symposium was highly noteworthy because of the participation of family members of the two American college students caught up in the web of human rights crimes by North Korea.
Fred Warmbier spoke about the case of his son Otto, who was on a study trip to North Korea and was detained on January 1, 2016, allegedly for touching a propaganda poster. In 2017, the North Korean regime returned the brain-dead Otto to the United States. He died days later, his father explained, from the wounds of torture inflicted by North Korea. At the symposium Fred Warmbier said sadly, “Two days ago, on December 12, Otto would have been twenty-four.”
Since Otto’s passing, the Warmbier family has sued the North Korean regime for their son’s torture and murder and been tireless in telling the world about its brutality. He continued, pointing out it must not be allowed to intimidate those who are trying to bring abductees home, or to continue the “hostage-taking, torture, and extra-judicial killing” that has typified North Korea’s decades-long reign of terror.
Michael Sneddon and James Sneddon represented their family, reading a letter from their family that powerfully explains the mindset of those whose loved ones are ongoing victims of the North Korea’s brutality and ruthlessness.
They spoke about the case of their brother, David Sneddon. About to enter law school, David had been hiking in the picturesque mountains of Yunnan Province in southwestern People’s Republic of China when he disappeared under suspicious circumstances. The family’s own research confirmed he had not died there.
Information the Sneddons obtained from two defectors in the Republic of Korea have confirmed for the family that David is indeed being held in Pyongyang, another hostage of the Kim regime.
The cases of Otto Warmbier and David Sneddon join a long list of those whose lives have been torn apart by North Korea’s terrorism. The Sneddons’ letter, along with Fred Warmbier’s impassioned plea, also reminded us that there is hope for recovering the hostages. But it will take resolve.
As Takuya Yokota, a younger brother of an abductee, Megumi Yokota, implied at the symposium, increasing pressure on Kim Jong-Un and the government in Pyongyang is crucial to forcing the North Koreans to release their captives.
Shoichi Osawa—an elder brother of Takashi Osawa, who is among those whose disappearance is likely attributable to North Korean abduction—is already in his seventies. His parents died without knowing what happened to their son. Many other family members of abduction victims have also passed away without seeing their beloved sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives return from imprisonment in the North Korea. “There is no more time,” Osawa said.
Advice of the Experts
In a panel discussion led by Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, internationally acclaimed human rights experts discussed what can be done to end the human rights abuses by North Korea. Scarlatoiu’s organization, HRNK was the first to publish a book in English on the abductions of Japanese by North Korea, Taken! (2011, HRNK), and has published prolifically on a wide variety of human rights violations under the North Korean regime.
Over the past several years, North Korea’s nuclear program has dominated headlines around the world. Its dramatic ballistic missile launches and dizzying brinksmanship led to a widely-touted summit meeting with U.S. president Donald Trump in Singapore in June 2018.
However, as veteran American diplomat and Korean expert Evans Revere pointed out at the symposium, North Korea’s human rights violations cannot be separated from its nuclear threats and saber rattling. The others on the panel including international human rights lawyers agreed.
South Korean professor Youngshik Bong agreed that North Korea would not respond to anything but the harshest pressure from outside. At the same time, he praised Japan’s moral courage for holding fast to the human rights issue during the six-party talks held largely during the early 2000s. At the time, Japan was heavily criticized for refusing to sign a deal with North Korea that did not include the return of all hostages—to Japan, to the Republic of Korea, and to every other country from which they were abducted. In retrospect, Prof. Bong said, that decision proved to be the right one.
Human Rights lawyer and Ritsumeikan Law School professor Kimio Yakushiji reminded the audience of the UN agreements to which North Korea is a party but not compliant. His discussion helped focus the symposium on options to convince North Korea to bring itself into compliance with international law and norms.
Japan’s leadership continues to be essential on the issue of North Korean human rights. This is especially true given the deadlock within the United Nations Security Council, where some member states are often hesitant to discuss abuses and other crimes against humanity by North Korea.
World Leaders Show North Korea its Behavior is its Greatest Liability
Prime Minister Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump, along with South Korean President Moon Jae In, have held out the prospect of economic development for North Korea should it abandon its state-sponsored terrorism and release its abductees and other hostages. The possibility of lifting the North’s 25 million people out of poverty and distress into an affluent 21st century must be attractive to the North Korean regime.
Sending Off ‘Winds from Home’
Putting the year’s efforts into perspective, the December symposium ended on an upbeat note with a mini concert, joint recording of the radio programs, Furusato no Kaze (Winds from Home) and Shiokaze (Sea Breeze), which regularly broadcasts towards North Korea.
The music of the late afternoon soared on the hopes of the audience and the talent of professionals and amateurs alike. It was a poignant reminder of depth of free society’s longing for the return of their loved ones and an end to North Korea’s violations of international norms.
A Chance to Choose a Better Life for North Koreans
With the close of the symposium and an active year garnering international understanding and support, the stage is set for 2019. Will North Korea abandon its programs of human rights violations, nuclear and missile weapons development? Will it seek aid and accept instead the offers of help in building a meaningful economy – and life for the people of North Korea?
There is no future for North Korea without the return of every abductee. In tandem, there must be resolution of the nuclear weapons and missile programs that also violate international law and threaten the world.
All eyes will be on Northeast Asia in 2019, waiting to see whether the long nightmare of North Korea’s global campaign of terrorism may finally be drawing to a close.
All Official titles cited in the text are as of May 2018