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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

INTERVIEW | Kim Yung-ho is Seoul's Forward-Thinking Unification Minister

In an exclusive interview, Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho discusses cooperation, resolving the abductions and his priorities for North Korean human rights.



South Korea's Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho during an interview in his Seoul office on March 29. The words "Freedom, Peace, Unification" adorn the wall behind him. (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

SEOUL - On April 1, South Korea's Unification Minister, Kim Yung-ho, sat down for an exclusive interview with the Sankei Shimbun. Kim, who is responsible for North Korean policy, revealed a significant pivot in the country's approach to unification.

Excerpts follow.

South Korea's Updated Strategy

Minister Kim Yung-ho described the new plan as placing paramount importance on addressing North Korea's human rights violations. It specifically focuses on resolving abduction cases involving South Korean and Japanese nationals. This shift constitutes a fundamental pillar of South Korea's updated strategy. 

Emphasizing the need for international cooperation, particularly with Japan, the strategy outlines a comprehensive overhaul of the South's policy toward North Korea. 

Additionally, the plan entails intensifying efforts to gather information on Japanese abduction victims. It also aims to facilitate exchanges between the affected families in South Korea and Japan. Kim Yung-ho stressed, "Protecting our citizens is one of the state's paramount duties." He highlighted that liberating individuals detained in North Korea, including abduction victims, is a "top priority" for the government.

In an interview with the Sankei Shimbun on March 29, Unification Minister Kim Yong-ho shows a badge created to raise awareness of the North Korean abduction issue. The design features forget-me-nots, which have the flower language of "don't forget me." (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

This represents a historic departure from South Korea's previous unification policy. Traditionally, the policy has leaned towards dialogue and cooperation with the North Korean regime. Efforts to rescue abduction victims were often viewed as barriers to dialogue, a stance echoed by both government officials and public opinion.

President Yoon Suk Yeol, however, challenged that previous narrative in a recent speech. Yoon asserted that advancing universal values like freedom and human rights in North Korea is central to the essence of unification. In alignment with this vision, the South Korean government has initiated efforts to craft a new unification plan, Kim said.

Diplomatic Initiatives and Collaborative Efforts

Minister Kim also highlighted the significance of agreements made during the August 2023 trilateral summit at Camp David. Leaders of Japan, the United States, and South Korea pledged to cooperate in resolving the abductions and supporting a peaceful Korean Peninsula. He emphasized the crucial role Japan's government and people play in this process.


Agencies under the Ministry of Unification have intensified efforts, conducting interviews with North Korean defectors in South Korea to further these goals. According to Minister Kim, starting in February 2024, these initiatives expanded to include inquiries about Japanese abduction victims. 

Regional Engagement

Plans are also underway to facilitate exchanges among families affected by abductions in both Japan and South Korea. Minister Kim expressed interest in meeting with families of Japanese abduction victims, including Megumi Yokota's family. Megumi was abducted by North Korean agents when she was only 13. 

The minister offered insights into recent maneuvers by Kim Yo-jong. She is the deputy director of the Worker's Party and sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He also discussed the potential visit of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to North Korea.

Minister Kim contextualized these developments against North Korea's deepening diplomatic isolation. He cited South Korea's recent normalization of relations with Cuba as an example. 

At the same time, he criticized North Korea's inconsistency. Specifically, he highlighted Yo-jong's public disclosure of Japan's summit offer. Yo-jong followed this by stating the family's refusal to negotiate with Japan the very next day.

Kim emphasized the importance of South Korea maintaining close communication with Japan. "If dialogue between Tokyo and Pyongyang contributes to peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, I won't oppose it," he stated.

About Kim Yung-ho                                                                 

Kim Yung-ho is an international political scholar and associate professor at Sungshin Women's University in South Korea. He is currently on sabbatical. Previously, he served as a Presidential Secretary for Unification during Lee Myung-bak's administration from 2011 to 2012. Additionally, he held the role of Visiting Professor at Keio University for six months in 2015. Since July 2023, the 64-year-old scholar has been South Korea's Minister of Unification. 


(Read the interview story in Japanese.)

Authors: Norio Sakurai and Tatsuya Tokiyoshi, Seoul Bureau, The Sankei Shimbun