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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

[Speaking Out] New North Korea Abduction Policy to Leverage Aid Gains US Support

Families of abductees will not oppose aid to North Korea once all victims are returned. US lawmakers and officials have expressed support for this new policy.



US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (fourth from left) meets with the abductees' families and members of the Parliamentary League to Take Action to Rescue Immediately the Japanese Citizens Abducted by North Korea in Washington, DC, on May 3. (© US Department of State)

In early May, a delegation from the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, its supporting organization, and a supra-partisan parliamentary league on the abduction issue visited the United States for the first time in four years. 

I joined the delegation as the chairman of the supporting organization. The main purpose of the visit was to gain US understanding and support for our new policy of "not opposing" humanitarian aid to North Korea "if all Japanese abductees return home together while their parents are alive." I believe this purpose was achieved. 

In February 2019, then-US President Donald Trump directly conveyed the message of the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resolve the abduction issue to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and received a positive response. We were informed of this by a senior Trump administration official during our previous visit in May 2019. However, the abduction issue failed to make progress due to a breakup in Trump-Kim talks over the North Korean nuclear problem.

Under the US Joe Biden administration, Washington-Pyongyang dialogues have been completely shut down. And the Kim regime has deployed nuclear missiles and repeated missile firing drills. In such a situation, the Abe-Trump strategy to resolve the abduction issue through US-North Korea nuclear talks cannot work. 

tactical nuclear weapons
North Korea's Korean Central News Agency released this photo on November 19, 2022. Kim Jong Un, along with his daughter, inspects an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (© KCNA via Reuters)

Resolving Two Humanitarian Issues Simultaneously 

In the meantime, North Korea has been plagued with serious food shortages as a result of tough international economic sanctions and the closure of its border with China due to the COVID-19 pandemic. North Korea has requested China for massive food aid since last autumn, but Beijing has rejected this request. 

In consideration of the situation, the Association of Families and the supporting organization adopted a new policy in February. It urges the Kim regime to resolve the two humanitarian issues simultaneously. Namely, the urgent humanitarian issue of returning not only abductees identified by the Japanese government, but all of the abductees together, and the humanitarian issue of food shortages in North Korea. 

The new policy will not work if the Kim regime believes that America may oppose Japan's contact with North Korea in the absence of US-North Korea nuclear talks. Furthermore, although humanitarian aid does not violate United Nations sanctions against North Korea, explaining the new policy and gaining understanding and support for the policy from the US is indespensable. America has provided massive support for Japan's efforts to resolve the abduction issue. 

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman (third from left) with family members of the abductees, members of the supporting organization, and members of the parliamentary group in Washington, DC, on May 3. (© US Department of State)

Deputy Secretary of State Promised Full Support 

Senior US government officials listened to our explanation and indicated their understanding of the new policy. They included Kurt Campbell, who is the National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of North Korea, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for human rights, and Under Secretary of the Treasury Brian Nelson.

Wearing a blue-ribbon badge symbolizing movements to rescue Japanese abductees, Sherman offered to do everything she could to support us.


Lawmakers who also offered understanding and support for the new policy include Republican Senators Dan Sullivan, Ted Cruz, and Bill Hagerty (a former ambassador to Japan), as well as Republican Representative Larry Bucshon. 

We also held meetings with experts on North Korea outside of the government. One of them offered to support the new policy, saying, "Japan has imposed the world's toughest sanctions on North Korea because of the abduction issue. Therefore, lifting the parts of the sanctions that are tougher than the international level when all Japanese abductees return home will not be opposed by any country or any human rights activist in the world." 


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #1037 in Japanese on May 8 and in English on May 9, 2023.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka 

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Koreas.

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