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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

INTERVIEW | Diplomat Tae Young-ho Brings New Insights to Abductions Issue

A former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016, PPP lawmaker Tae Young-ho has committed to accounting for the North's abductions victims.

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South Korean lawmaker Representative Tae Young-ho. (©JAPAN Forward by Kenji Yoshida)

Last November, South Korea's Ministry of Unification reconvened its North Korean abduction task force after an 11-year hiatus. In that time, the issue has been noticeably sidelined in South Korea's national discourse. Media and other South Korean politicians have also largely remained disengaged. Meanwhile, Tae Young-ho, a ruling People Power Party lawmaker, has risen to the occasion. 

Tae was Pyongyang's former deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom who defected to the South in 2016. That background puts Tae in a unique position to tackle the problem.   

Since the end of the Korean War (1950-53), an estimated 3,835 South Koreans have been captured by the despotic regime. Of them, 3,310 were repatriated back to South Korea while nine successfully escaped. But the remaining 516 abductees have yet to step foot in their homeland.  

For neighboring Japan, this is a shared tragedy. Its government officially recognizes 17 abductees, five of whom have returned home. Unofficially, however, there are said to be over 800 additional victims whose disappearances cannot be ruled unrelated to the North.  

In early January 2024, Tae spoke with JAPAN Forward about his views on the matter. He also focused on how Tokyo and Seoul can cooperate moving forward. 

What is Japan Missing? 

During his visit to Tokyo in mid-December, 2023, Tae attended a conference on the North Korean abductions issue. There he met politicians and activists with a common objective of addressing one of the worst human rights violations in modern history.  

Tae Young-ho (left) with Tetsuya Yokota (right), brother of abductee Megumi Yokota, in Tokyo  (©Tae Young-ho)

But despite years of conscientious efforts by the Japanese government and activists, little progress has been made since 2002.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06) met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the Pyongyang Summit in September 2002. At that time, Kim Jong Il made the surprise admission to kidnapping Japanese citizens. By then, Japan had identified at least 17 abduction victims. North Korea returned five of them in October of that same year. But none has returned home since. 

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We questioned if Japan was missing something in its approach. 

"One thing Japan overlooks is a legal fight," Tae said. "In South Korea, families of POWs held captive in North Korea successfully filed damages lawsuits in domestic courts. The victim's families in Japan should launch similar lawsuits and seize North Korean assets domestically and around the world."

"Japanese activists seem overly focused on negotiations with Pyongyang. But a complex issue of this sort requires a multi-faceted, carrot-and-stick approach, Tae added"

Towards Mutual Cooperation 

Tokyo and Seoul have lately increased their partnership on various fronts. However, the abductions issue has yet to mature into a joint venture. We asked about ways in which Tokyo and Seoul could collaborate. 

"The first step is to share the mutual pain," Tae said. "When South Korean politicians travel to Japan, as with myself, we should meet with those affected and convey our conviction and condolences. Of course, it needs to work vice-versa.

UN Security Council in New York (©Public Domain) 

Tae also alluded to the importance of sending a unified message on the global stage.

"This year, South Korea and Japan are serving as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council," he pointed out. "The two countries should actively raise North Korea's abductions issue at the Human Rights Council. And they should persuade member states to propose a more robust motion at the Security Council."     

Role of the United States

For many years, Washington has also played an instrumental role in facilitating a diplomatic parley with Pyongyang and raising global awareness of the abductions issue.

But with armed conflicts brewing each day halfway across the world, American attention has been diverted from East Asia. Not to mention diverted from the abductions issue. We asked about Washington's role moving forward. 

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"In the 2023 Camp David Summit, the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and the US reaffirmed their commitments to resolving the abductions issue. But this isn't enough, Tae remarked. 

"Declaration without a tangible commitment is merely words on a piece of paper. For potent results, we need to institutionalize the Camp David Framework and not let it be abrogated under future leadership."    

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, US President Joe Biden, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol meet at the Camp David presidential retreat near Washington DC. (©AP via Kyodo) 

Is There a Need for a Renewed Approach? 

The abductions issue is a pending problem for Japan and South Korea. Yet, the grim reality is that both countries have struggled for years without fruitful results. 

Meanwhile, frustrations are growing as victim's families age and some pass away without seeing their loved ones return.  

Amid such deadlock, some experts call for lessening reliance on Washington. Instead, they propose Japan and South Korea strike a deal with Russia and China. Both are authoritarian regimes with sizable sway over Pyongyang. We asked if this was a reasonable proposition. 

"If anything, Moscow and Beijing continue to cover for Pyongyang's systematic involvement in the abductions and enforced disappearances," Tae said. 

"As for Moscow, it's increasingly working as a tacit ally of Pyongyang, even sharing vital military information. It's unrealistic at this point to seek genuine assistance [from them]," Tae remarked. Instead, he emphasized the need to revitalize our traditional methods.

Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin shaking hands in September 2023 (©Office of the President of Russia)

Reminding us that the center of gravity over the abductions issue is in Japan, Tae said: "Recall that Pyongyang admitted to kidnapping Japanese nationals in the early 2000s and returned five of them. It's essentially the first time in history that the autocratic regime has openly admitted to violating human rights. Considering this fact alone, Tokyo has substantial leverage over Pyongyang." 

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