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Kim Jong Un: It’s Time to Change – Let’s Resolve the Abductions and Move Forward to a Bright Future

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Feature Story by JAPAN Forward

The new Japanese era of Reiwa arrived, bringing with it the hope of beautiful peace and harmony in the world – and unprecedented opportunity. There will never be a better time or greater rewards than now for North Korea to work with Japan to resolve the cases of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.

The abductions remain one of the most painfully unresolved issues of the Showa and Heisei eras. In a bid to end the decades of pain and suffering of the victims and families, and to offer North Korea the chance for a better future, the Japanese government embarked upon an unprecedented, non-stop initiative of international collaboration and outreach as the year 2019, and first year of Reiwa, opened.

Reaching Out with New Hope for Better Relations

Prime Minister Abe hinted at a new strategy in his early January dialogue with renowned violinist Ryu Goto. Welcoming the new year, he made it clear resolution of the abductions could be accompanied by economic opportunities for North Korea.

He said: “If the nuclear, missile, and abduction issues are settled in a comprehensive manner, Japan and North Korea would then be able to normalize diplomatic relations through settling the unfortunate past.”

Following up on the first morning of the new Reiwa era with an even stronger offer of a meeting with no preconditions, he explained: “It is most important that Japan takes its own initiative to tackle this issue, while at the same time collaborating with the international community. There can be no alternative other than to face Chairman Kim directly in order to break through the shell of mutual distrust between Japan and North Korea.”

Prime Minister Abe noted the simple steps necessary for economic assistance to begin, saying, “A resolution to the abduction issue will be equated, first of all, with a step toward normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations based on the Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration.”

Whirlwind Diplomacy

Simultaneously, Yoshihide Suga, the Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue accompanied by members of the victims’ families, visited to Washington D.C. and New York to carry the Japanese government’s message to the international community.

Prime Minister Abe himself followed up with three consecutive months of consultations and strategy discussions in summit meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump.

This was followed up by consultations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia, Northeast Asian powers holding their own keys to resolution of the North Korea issues.

President Trump Assures Families: ‘You Will Win’

‘We will be working together to bring your relatives – your daughters, your sons, your mothers – home. And we’ll work on that together, Okay, Shinzo?’

These were the words of President Trump as he met with the families of Japanese victims on May 27 during his state visit to Japan.

His comments followed the second Japan-U.S. summit of the year, after April talks in Washington D.C., featuring North Korea and the abductions. The effort reflected the commitment of the two allies and partners to use the full range of options in a global effort to bring North Korea to the table to resolve the abduction, nuclear and missile issues.

The gesture toward the families didn’t stop there, however. President Trump later sent a handwritten letter to Akihiro Arimoto, telling the 90-year-old father of Japanese abduction victim Ms. Keiko Arimoto (23 when abducted), “you will win” and encouraging him to keep trying.

The move, just ahead of the G20 summit meetings in June, was a response to Mr. Arimoto’s letter to President Trump in May, expressing confidence in President Trump and Prime Minister Abe to resolve the abduction issue.

Seeking Out the North’s Powerful Mentors

Breaking free from the status quo, Japan extended its whirlwind of diplomacy on the abductions to include outreach to both powerful Northeast Asian neighbors. Consistently, both the China and Russia have protected North Korea in the international community, ignored the abduction issue and openly disagreed with Japan and the United Nations over the enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang’s violation of international norms.
In a bid to signal an openness to better relations ahead of the G20 summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping pushed forward Prime Minister Abe’s offer of a meeting without preconditions when he met with North Korea’s Kim in June. Xi Jinping’s first official trip to Pyongyang as the President came a week ahead of the G20 summit meetings in Osaka and allowed Xi to bring to Osaka the news that Kim had “taken note” of Abe’s offer.

In their 2018 summit meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for restraint in addressing the regional security issues posed by North Korea. And he also has been unsupportive of the tough sanctions imposed on Pyongyang by the United Nations. Yet, he and Prime Minister Abe have been successful in establishing cordial relations, leading to improved communications.

In the bilateral meetings between the two during the G20 in June, President Putin said he shared the outcome of his own April 25 talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Vladivostok and acknowledged the urgency of international problems related to the Korean peninsula.

He implicitly endorsed the approach proposed by Prime Minister Abe in his press statement on June 29, saying: “What we need is a commitment to dialogue from all the countries involved. This is the only way to ensure security and foster development in Northeast Asia, a region that is home to both Russia and Japan.”

Further efforts to find way forward

Reflecting the Abe administration’s commitment to find way forward for a comprehensive resolution of the North Korean abductions, nuclear and missile issues, multiple tactics were visits by the initiated to find a way forward the Reiwa era opened. Among the initiatives were delegations to Washington D.C. and New York including government officials, family members, experts on the region and Diet members from both the ruling and opposition parties.

Meeting with officials at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Congress in Washington D.C. and with the missions of UN partners and allies in New York, the Japanese delegations pressed for understanding of the global implications if the issue is left unresolved. Japanese family members, along with the families of American, South Korean and Thai victims, presented the direct voices of the victims and their families as they participated in seminars with American, South Korean and Japanese experts in each location.

A May 3 seminar cosponsored by the Hudson Institute with the government of Japan and the Committee on Human Rights for North Korea explored international cooperation toward the comprehensive resolution of outstanding issues of concern – abductions, nuclear, and missile issues. The two-part seminar featured the personal voices of families of the Japanese, South Korean and American victims, along with regional experts and government officials.

In New York on May 10, Japan’s partners, Australia, the United States and the European Union, joined Japan in collaborating on a seminar on the global initiative to bring resolution to the North Korea issues, including hearing from the families of Japanese, American and Thai victims and a multinational panel of former diplomats and experts.

The goal: discuss possible ways of international cooperation towards the comprehensive resolution of the outstanding issues of concern such as the abductions, nuclear and missile issues, and enhance the understanding of the international community.

Abductions Not the Only Issue but Could Be the Key Pressure and Dialogue

International sanctions through the UN and additional sanctions by Japan and international allies have brought the maximum pressure to bear on North Korea over the past few years. Legitimate sources of foreign currency, luxury goods, markets, energy and other resources have been virtually cut off. In Japan, money transfers to North Korea and transportation between Japan and North Korea have been restricted, among other measures.

These steps have brought pain, but also opportunity for North Korea. Kim Jong-Un has engaged directly with the outside world twice in summit meetings with President Trump in 2018 and 2019. He has also engaged in talks with Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The issue of the abductions has been raised at the highest level, with personal messages conveyed from Prime Minister Abe through President Trump to Chairman Kim, and back through President Xi.

Chairman Kim now has the opportunity of the century within his reach, to lift his nation out of seven decades of isolation, jump-start its failed economy and improve the lives of the North Korean people. He needs only to decide to end the crime of abductions and return the victims to their homeland.

Aging Victims and North Korea’s Bleak Economy

Both sides have several reasons to pursue face to face talks. Japan’s often stated objective is well known. As the families of the victims age, there is a sense of urgency propelling the government’s will to resolve the abductions issue and bring all of its abducted citizens home.

For North Korea, its future is bleak unless dramatic steps are taken to resuscitate its economy. Until the end of the Pacific War and into the 1950’s, it was North Korea that was the economic powerhouse of the Korean peninsula, while South Korea was its kitchen garden. After the armistice, the country closed itself off and strangled its enterprises, squandering its industrial base.

Although many aspects of its economy are opaque, the World Handbook lists North Korea’s economy as 117th in the world, adding that it “faces chronic economic problems. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance. Large-scale military spending and development of its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs severely draw off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. Industrial and power outputs have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels. Frequent weather-related crop failures aggravated chronic food shortages caused by ongoing systemic problems, including a lack of arable land, collective farming practices, poor soil quality, insufficient fertilization and persistent shortages of tractors and fuel.”

Yet, as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue said at a May 10, 2019 symposium on the abductions in New York, “North Korea is blessed with untapped natural resources and a diligent workforce that could greatly enhance productivity. If North Korea chooses the right path, it could draw a bright future for itself.”

Need for Global Resolution

Reminding the audience that the “issue of abductions is truly a global challenge”, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary called for close international cooperation on resolution of the global issue, while making it clear the government of Japan would “not miss any opportunity to take decisive action to cause the earliest possible resolution.

The families of victims have continued to press the government at every opportunity. They have the support of 13 million Japanese whose petitions demanding government resolution of the issue were shared at the May 19, 2019 National Rally in Tokyo. The Prime Minister, speaking to the families, assured them that the government will make every effort to bring home their loved ones immediately.

Who are the Victims?

All seventeen officially identified Japanese victims were civilians going about their very ordinary lives when they were abducted by North Korean agents. The known victims from other countries were likewise ordinary civilians in the prime of their lives. All of them left behind devastated mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and infant children who had no idea why their loved ones disappeared into thin air, or why.

They were as young as a thirteen-year-old girl abducted on her way home from junior high school and as old as a 52-year-old man taken while working along the Japanese coast. Most, though, were in their early 20’s when their futures were snatched from them by North Korean agents.

Korean residents of Japan were also abducted, including an infant brother and sister who were domiciled in Japan. And there are an additional 882 cases of missing persons in which the possibility of abduction by North Korea cannot be ruled out by the Japanese government.

Of course, victims of abduction by North Korea are not only from Japan. According to the NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), There are victims from as many as 14 other countries in the Asia, Europe and the Middle East and the United States. Perhaps the greatest number, at least 500, are citizens of South Korea. All of the families also long for their loved one’s return.

Time to Move Forward Toward Resolution

“North Korea knows to the last detail where every citizen is” and therefore can decide to resolve this issue at any time, pointed out former American diplomat and regional expert Evans Revere in the New York seminar on May 10.

Even now, tightening international sanctions to close loopholes and cooperating in sanctions enforcement continue to be important measures available to Japan and the international community to encourage North Korea’s attention to its international obligations, including on the abductions.

Ultimately, it is Kim Jong-Un himself who must decide whether to remain isolated, or instead resolve these issues and open the door to a bright future for his country.

Prime Minister Abe has offered to meet without preconditions. It’s time for both sides to grab this chance.

Chairman Kim, accept Prime Minister Abe’s offer to meet without conditions, and let the discussions begin. Opening the door to change can only help North Korea, too.

 

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All Official titles cited in the text are as of May 2019