~Kim Jong Un, "Send home the Japanese. Send them home now, while their families are here to welcome them." (IIZUKA Koichiro,)
"Return all of the abductees immediately and North Korea will have a bright future." (YOKOTA Takuya)~
These are the messages delivered by the families whose loved ones were abducted by North Korean agents in a new video released by the government’s Headquarters for the Abduction Issue. Their messages are ones of hope and determination from a kaleidoscope of voices led by Japan’s prime minister, SUGA Yoshihide and a promise that the government will not be impeded by the COVID-19 pandemic as it seeks the resolution of the abductions issue and to reach out to top leadership in North Korea.
The issue of abductions by North Korea is a matter of serious concern for the international community.
I am ready to meet with Chairman Kim Jong Un without any conditions. Establishing a constructive relationship between Japan and North Korea will not only serve the interests of both sides but will also greatly contribute to regional peace and stability. I will miss no opportunity to take actions with all my dedication.
So said the new prime minister in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, echoing his words on taking up the reins of government on September 16, 2020, and in his virtual and in-person meetings with world leaders . Moreover, this is an issue he has worked on for many years, including as Minister for Abductions under the ABE Shinzo administration, where he raised the issue to the international community at various meetings and symposiums, in Japan and abroad, with friends, allies and experts.
The Government of Japan has identified North Korea’s abduction of 17 Japanese victims. Victims were abducted in Japan and while studying or traveling abroad and transported roughly to North Korea. However, there is yet no ending to the story. The pain has been ongoing for decades, raw and unresolved, with occasional reports thrusting the families into emotions alternating between hope and despair.
“When I think about the long years of suffering and sadness experienced by the victims and their families, I am deeply sorry on behalf of the Japanese Government” said the new prime minister in the video.
The abductions issue is critical. It concerns the sovereignty of Japan and the lives and safety of Japanese citizens. The Japanese government continues to make its maximum efforts by mobilizing all available resources of the government to achieve the return of all abductees as soon as possible.
PM Suga is joined in the video with representatives of the United States, Australia, the European Union and the international human rights community, who have added their voices to the call for return of the victims and changes to bring human rights into North Korea.
Finding a Way Forward
The United States Government has been supportive for the resolution of the abductions issue. The U.S. repeatedly urged North Korea’s chairman to resolve the issue, while arranging meetings, as well as sending letters of encouragement and sympathy to the families of abductees. David Stilwell, assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, U.S. Department of State reiterated this resolve in the video, saying:
We have pressed the DPRK on this at the highest levels. All of our most heartfelt considerations are with the families and loved ones of those who have disappeared. We will continue to work unceasingly to return them home.
Minister in charge of the Abduction Issue KATO Katsunobu served in the same position from 2015-2018, during which he, too, took the issue to the international community. On the day of his appointment by PM Suga, he took time to call YOKOTA Sakie, mother of one of the abductees, to surprise her with the announcement and a promise to do everything in his power to bring her daughter and the other victims home. In the video, he gives voice to the Government of Japan’s commitment:
The Government of Japan, under the leadership of Prime Minister Suga, will do its utmost, without missing any opportunities to ensure that all abductees return home as soon as possible.
Seeking resolution on the abductions and other outstanding issues, Prime Minister Suga added on September 26,
Japan’s position remains unchanged. Japan seeks to normalize its relationship with North Korea, in accordance with the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, through comprehensively resolving the outstanding issues of concern such as the abductions, nuclear and missile issues, as well as settlement of the unfortunate past.
The statement reflects broad consensus among Japan’s ruling and opposition parties, including the Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan and Nippon Ishin no Kai, which affirmed their hopes at the national rally for resolution of the abductions on October 24, 2020.
Aging Families, Abductees
The plight of aging was felt acutely in 2020. YOKOTA Shigeru died in June without the happiness of seeing his daughter Megumi, kidnapped while walking home from school in 1977 when she was just 13. Earlier in February the group lost ARIMOTO Kayoko, the mother of ARIMOTO Keiko who was 23 when she was abducted in Europe while studying abroad in 1983. Prime Minister Suga noted this in his September 26 speech, saying:
It is heartbreaking to imagine the pain of the family members who passed, after working so hard to rescue their dearest children and yet not achieving a reunion in the end. As the families of the abductees continue to age, there is no time to lose before we resolve the abductions issue.
Megumi’s younger brother, YOKOTA Takuya, addressing a memorial service for his father in Tokyo on October 24, emphasized not only the agony of the delay in rescuing the victims, but the goal of the families:
Safe return of the abductees is all we want. Until they return, our hearts cannot be calmed. We have no time.
In the video Takuya and his brother Tetsuya relate the story of their sister’s abduction, as told to the family by a North Korean agent who later defected. They also explain the global breadth of the crimes:
The cases of abduction by North Korea are not limited to Japanese citizens. Victims exist in many other countries, such as Thailand, Romania, Lebanon, and South Korea. We, families of abductees all share the same pain. Together, we fight, protest and demand that North Korea release the abductees and resolve the issue.
In an appeal for a global approach to resolution, the brothers also signal Japan's generosity of spirit and willingness to help North Korea rebuild for a “bright future” when all of the abductees are returned.
IIZUKA Koichiro the son of victim TAGUCHI Yaeko doesn’t have first-hand memories of his mother, who was abducted when he was only a year old. As he relates in the video, stories of the young mother’s later life came from a North Korean defector, Kim Hyon-hui, who studied Japanese language and culture from her, later using those skills to pose as Japanese, until she was caught overseas while committing terrorist acts.
MATSUKI Nobuhiro’s brother Kaoru is one of several victims abducted in Europe. In the video, he relates how his brother was taken to North Korea.
Among the cases still under investigation, IMAI Hideki’s brother Yutaka, a National Technical High School Exhibition top prize winner, disappeared just two days before his graduation in 1969. Perhaps by coincidence, the top prize for technology, the “KISHI Nobusuke Award,” was given to him “by the prime minister of the day, who was the grandfather of [former] Prime Minister Abe.”
Victims of at least 13 nationalities have become known over the years.
One of the more recent victims is American David Sneddon, fluent in Korean and Chinese, who went missing in August 2004 after hiking in Yunnan, China, and is thought to have been abducted by North Korean agents. As with other abduction victims, the family has had no communication from David since his disappearance. Echoing the views of other victims’ families and officials in the video, brother James Sneddon conveys the family's message to North Korea:
If North Korea wants to become a developed “country”, they should return the abductees without any delay.
The family of Thai victim Anocha Panchoi learned where she was from Charles Jenkins, the husband of one of five Japanese victims who returned home after Prime Minister KOIZUMI Junichiro 2002 summit meeting in Pyongyang. Since then, her family has joined the international appeal in Tokyo, Washington and at the United Nations. In the 2020 video appeal, Banjong Panchoi, her nephew, relates the help and hope that comes from working through international cooperation.
International Partnerships, Global Voices
Building on his work as Minister for Abductions in the Abe administration, PM Suga has been engaged with international partners at the U.N. and at other bilateral meetings to broaden international understanding and break through to a resolution on the abductions issue. Following promises he made in the runup to his election, he appealed one-on-one to world leaders in his first talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, , Australian leader Scott Morisonand South Korean President Moon Jae In, among others. The U.S., European Union and Australia have joined him in the video outreach initiative with their own messages, highlighting their nations’ shared determination to achieve return of the abductees and closure on this chapter of North Korea’s rogue behavior.
Assistant Secretary David Stilwell, for the U.S., sent a clear, succinct message:
The United States stands with our ally Japan, with abductee families and with the international community in pressing for a resolution for this issue at the earliest possible opportunity.
The Honorable Richard Court, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Australia to Japan, added his country’s view, noting:
Respect for human rights is a fundamental component of achieving the peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula that is in all our interests, the DPRK included.
His thoughts were echoed by the Honorable Patricia Flor, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the European Union to Japan:
To be abducted by the North Korean regime, to never ever return home during your lifetime must be hell for the families and the victims.
Ambassador Flor then affirmed: “The European Union has persistently supported resolutions at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations denouncing human rights abuse in North Korea and highlighting the fate of the abductees,” adding, “I can assure you that the EU is ready to lend our support to international initiatives…”
In 2020, the EU continued its appeal for resolution of the abductions issue, supported by the U.S. and other partner states, it introduced the resolution to the Third Committee of the General Assembly to renew the UN members' collective concern over human rights abuses and the abductions of Japanese and other foreigners by North Korea, A/C.3/75/L.30. Significantly, it noted: "In one of only two displays of consensus, the Committee approved a draft resolution on human rights conditions in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by which the Assembly would condemn, in the strongest terms, the systematic, widespread and gross violations by its authorities." The resolution passes on to the General Assembly for a final vote in December.
A Future for North Korea
The leadership of democracies, including Japan and its partners, has changed over the years and this year, but concern for return of all victims abducted by North Korea has only grown stronger. This point was also made recently by Suzanne Scholte, Seoul Peace Prize Laureate (2008) and president of the Defense Forum Foundation based in Washington, D.C. She has worked together with the Japanese families toward grass roots and government recognition of the abductions since 2004, on initiatives such as passage of the first North Korean Human Rights Act (2004) and the first U.S. Congressional Hearing on the abductions (2006). Reminding us that the families have met with every U.S. president since then, including Republicans George Bush and Donald Trump and Democrat President Barack Obama as well as his vice president, now president-elect, Joe Biden, she noted on November 20:
The U.S. government's commitment towards resolving the abduction issue will continue to be a priority for Asia. The Japanese families will continue to have support by any incoming administration.
Other experts concerned about conditions in North Korea agree. Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in Washington D.C. and Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, with others such as CSIS and 38 North, consistently make invaluable contributions to global knowledge of the North's dire humanitarian conditions. Despite the closed country's protestations, massive suffering and human rights abuses remain rampant. International sanctions been effective, and the North Korean economy was further devastated by typhoon-driven torrential rains and widespread flooding and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, raising the threat of severe famine. Only the rogue development of military nuclear and missile hardware has proceeded unabated. The bright future that will come if Kim Jong Un complies with international norms and resolves the abductions, as U.S. President Donald Trump described to Kim Jong Un in 2019, remains distant.
Mr. Scarlatoiu wrapped up observers' comments by addressing both the abduction victims and North Korea's opportunity in this year's video message:
The families of Japanese abductees are not in this for geopolitical gains or power plays. All they want is the return of loved ones. It has been far too long.
And yet, the people and government of Japan may offer the North Korean leader a unique opportunity, provide full closure, return our parents, siblings, and children, and perhaps a window of opportunity, truth, reconciliation, collaboration, and prosperity will open up for you, your own family, and your people.
We will not give up hope. We will not give up the fight until we find full closure.
[See the video, “Voices of the International Community Calling for Resolution of the Abduction Issue” here.]
Author: JAPAN Forward