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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

Raising International Resolve as New Leaders Push for the Abductees Return from North Korea

International partners vow to seize every opportunity in a bid to resolve the abductions issue.

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Megumi Yokota, left in pink, was 13 years old when she was abducted by North Korean agents in Niigata City while walking home from school.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, Japanese Foreign Minister HAYASHI Yoshimasa and Republic of Korea (ROK) Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong met in Honolulu, Hawaii on February 12, 2022. The three Ministers, among others, discussed the importance of the swift resolution of the abductions issue. Foreign Minister Hayashi asked for continued understanding and cooperation from the two Ministers on the abductions issue, and obtained their support.

Abductions by North Korea are one of the darkest chapters in human rights history that remain unresolved today. Dating from the 1970s, North Korea carried out a series of abductions of ordinary Japanese and other foreigners. Many Japanese citizens disappeared during the 1970s and 1980s and the Government of Japan has so far identified 17 Japanese citizens as victims of abduction. Except for five who came home in 2002, no other abductee has yet to return. 

Flags fly outside the United Nations General Assembly Hall (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo via AP)

International Unity

Families of abductees have been waiting for the return of their loved ones, whose lives and dreams were abruptly quashed when the abductees were taken away by North Korean agents. Mr. YOKOTA Takuya, speaking for the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, made this point at the international symposium on December 11, 2021: “I was 9 years old when my sister was abducted and 44 years have passed since then,” he said. “I have to fight as the third head of the association. I feel an indescribable contradiction at this reality.”

This international symposium was hosted by the Government of Japan and presented simultaneously in English, Korean and Japanese during North Korean Human Rights Abuses Awareness Week. Featuring experts and guests from several nations, the symposium sent a strong message: the international community stands solidly together in search of a path to end North Korea’s human rights violations. 

At this event, Mr. MATSUNO Hirokazu, Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue added to the message of the Japanese government’s unbending determination to find a resolution with North Korea: “The abductees as well as their families have aged. They wish to see concrete results at any cost. There is no time to lose.” 

He added that the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea are a “grave concern which affect the national sovereignty of Japan and the lives and safety of Japanese people.” 

Days later in a profound display of international solidarity, for the 17th consecutive year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution by consensus, calling for North Korea to “ensure the immediate return of all abductees.” 

People with Real Lives

Mr. YOKOTA Shigeru (1932-2020) became the first leader of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea in 1997.  Mr. Yokota’s daughter Megumi was 13 years old when she was abducted to North Korea from Niigata City on November 15, 1977, on her way home from her junior high school after badminton club practice. Mr. Yokota Shigeru spent the rest of his life traveling Japan and the world in search of a way to bring home his daughter. As the years pass, the families of abductees are aging and dying. A new generation takes up the struggle. Mr. Yokota Shigeru’s son, Mr. Yokota Takuya who recently succeeded as head of the association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea. His mother  YOKOTA Sakie watched over her son’s speech from the audience during the symposium. 

Mr. IIZUKA Koichiro, newly appointed as the association’s secretary-general was also on the stage at the symposium. His adoptive father, Mr. IIZUKA Shigeo (1938-2021) was former head of the association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea and held that position for the past 14 years. He handed over the leadership baton to Mr. Yokota Takuya due to his illness on December 11, 2021, and he passed away on December 18 before realizing his dream of reuniting with his sister. Mr. IIZUKA Koichiro’s mother and Mr. IIZUKA Shigeo’s sister, Ms. TAGUCHI Yaeko, was abducted in 1978, when Mr. IIZUKA Koichiro was only one year old. Mr. Yokota Takuya and Mr. IIZUKA Koichiro  bring a lifetime of intimate knowledge to the abductions issue and the energy to push for a resolution that will end the tragedy.

Map of victims abducted in Japan.

Seventeen Japanese are confirmed as abductees, while 872 other cases of missing persons cannot be ruled out as possible abductions by North Korea. Ms. TAKESHITA Tamaji, secretary general of the Family Association of the Missing Persons Probably Related to the DPRK, represents the group and participated in the symposium. Her sister, Ms. FURUKAWA Noriko, disappeared from Chiba Prefecture in 1973. 

From overseas, Mr. James Sneddon (brother American Mr. David Sneddon, missing in 2003), Mr. Gabriel Bumbea (sister Romanian artist Ms. Doina Bumbea died in 1997 in North Korea), and Mr. Banjong Panchoi (aunt Thai Ms. Anocha Panchoi, missing in 1978) discussed the pain of those who left behind and the value of international cooperation.

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Along with other family members, Mr. Yokota reiterated that “even with the change of the leader, our demand does not change. That is, we continue to demand only the immediate return of all abductees, all at once.” 

Undiminished Determination

Mr. Kishida is the 10th prime minister to lead the Japanese government since five abductees have come back to Japan in September 2002, and he is also determined to resolve the abductions issue, saying as much in public comments, meetings with world leaders, and policy speeches,such as one on January 17, 2022 

“The abductions issue is one of the highest priority issues of the Kishida administration. Working in cooperation with other countries, I will do everything in my power to realize the return of all the abductees to Japan at the earliest possible date, making use of every possible opportunity.”

Speaking directly to Pyongyang, he adds: “I am determined to meet with Chairman Kim Jong-un myself face to face, without any conditions.”

The question remains how to get there. On that front, experts from the United States, South Korea and Japan provided insights at the most recent seminar.  

Forging a Path Forward

Experts on panel of Abductions symposium during North Korean Human Rights Abuses Awareness Week on December 11 2021

Three international experts explored the current environment and steps that might encourage progress in a panel discussion chaired by Dr. HOSHINO Toshiya, Former Ambassador of Japan to the United Nations and Professor in the School of Public Policy at Osaka University. The bottom line: international collaboration is critically important.

Dr. NISHINO Junya, Keio University professor and an expert in international politics, including on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia, emphasized international collaboration: “There has [never] been a time when international partnership cooperation has been so important,” he said. “Japan must continue partnership with the United States, our ally, as well as with South Korea, a party to Korean Peninsula issues, and with the international community.”

He called for “robust collaboration” under the “shared notion that North Korea’s abductions issue is a global issue,” emphasizing that “Japan must strongly demonstrate resolve and action toward the resolution of the abductions issue and take the leading role for international partnership. “Furthermore, he observed that North Korea aspires to improve its economy, and that resolution of the abductions issue is a prerequisite, “if they want economic aid from Japan.”

Participating from Seoul, Dr. Choi Kang, Acting President and Principal Fellow of the Asan Institute, echoed Dr. Nishino’s sentiments on the importance of international cooperation, adding that he hoped for more involvement from South Korea as a “member of the world democratic community.” 

This is a “crime against humanity,” he said, calling for consideration of legal action. 

In the United States, Mr. Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, pointed to the inevitable post-COVID-19 reset that will give North Korea an excellent opening, saying: “North Korea must make the strategic decision to change course,” in order to pave the way for a bright future. “No matter how difficult the abductions issue may be”, he added, “the international community must resolve this critical issue.”

Mr. Yokota ended his comments with an invitation to Chairman Kim Jong Un to “envision a bright future and realize peace” by resolving the abductions issue. 

The international community’s sentiments were summed up by Dr. Hoshino, who said: “We are not going to give up. Return of all of the abductees all at once. That is our goal.” 

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