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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

[Speaking Out] Separating the Abductions from the Nuclear Issue Has Moved Pyongyang

Did Kim Yo Jong offer to accept Kishida's visit to North Korea on the condition that the abductions issue would not become a stumbling block? Here's the latest.



Kim Yo Jong is the sister of North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and the Deputy Director of the Workers' Party of Korea (©Korean Central News Agency)

"The day of the prime minister's Pyongyang visit might come," said North Korea's de facto No 2, Kim Yo Jong, in a statement on February 15. She was referring to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Her brother and North Korea's top leader Kim Jong Un sent a condolence telegram to Kishida on January 5 over the Noto Peninsula earthquake. In it, he also used the honorific title of "Your Excellency." These moves imply that Kishida's message of calling for negotiations on the abductions issue separately from the nuclear issue is influencing the North Korean leadership.

In October 2022, Kishida referred to the comprehensive resolution of the North Korean abductions and nuclear and missile issues. However, the Japanese Prime Minister attached the term "time constraints" only to the abductions. This effectively separated the two issues. Since then, Kishida has consistently conveyed the same message.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida answers questions from reporters on the 46th anniversary of the abduction of Megumi Yokota, November 15, at the Prime Minister's Office (© Sankei by Ataru Haruna)

Kishida Could Visit North Korea Soon

I believe Kishida could visit North Korea soon. This presents a critical moment for resolving the issue of North Korea's abductions of Japanese citizens, as he aims to secure the collective return of all abductees.

It should not be overlooked that Kim Yo Jong's statement quoted Kishida's recent remarks at the House of Representatives Budget Committee. In other words, Pyongyang is even checking Kishida's parliamentary remarks. This indicates its high-level attention to Japan and the current government of Prime Minister Kishida.

"If Japan does not lay such a stumbling block as the already settled abduction issue in the future way for mending the bilateral relations, there will be no reason for the two countries not to become close and the day of the Prime Minister's Pyongyang visit might come," said Kim Yo Jong. Thus, she publicly offered to accept Kishida's visit to North Korea on the condition that the abductions issue would not become a stumbling block.

Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly of North Korea on January 15, 2024. In Pyongyang (©Korean Central News Agency/Kyodo)

The 'Already Settled' Issue

The description of the abductions issue as "already settled" is a cliché and does not have to be emphasized. This is because only Kim Jong Un has the power to reverse the description.

North Korea is facing a serious food crisis in which soldiers are starving and frequently commit robberies. Furthermore, the North Korean people's longing for the South has spread widely as many watch South Korean dramas. There were more than 100 anti-regime incidents in 2023, indicating a regime crisis. 

Right now, China is providing no grant aid. There is also an uncertain future of arms trade with Russia and a complete absence of contacts with the American Biden administration. Pyongyang seems attracted by Kishida's message that Japan will provide humanitarian aid in exchange for the return of the abductees, even without progress on the nuclear issue.

Sakie Yokoto stands next to a picture of her daughter Megumi, who was abducted by North Korean agents when she was 13 years old.

Stick to Abductees' Collective Return

The number of abductees' parents alive in Japan has fallen to only two. They include Sakie Yokota, the mother of abductee Megumi Yokota. The Pyongyang leadership is aware of the risks of waiting to return Megumi and other abductees after their parents' deaths. Waiting that long would arouse Japanese public opinion. In that case, there would not be any humanitarian aid, let alone large-scale economic assistance from Japan after the normalization of relations.

There have been rumors in some quarters of a proposal wherein North Korea would send home the officially identified abductee Minoru Tanaka and the unofficial possible victim Tatsumitsu Kaneda while continuing to investigate other abductees. Such a decision is inconceivable. The Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea and their supporting organization have repeatedly emphasized that there can be no option other than the immediate, collective return of all abductees. 


As far as I know, the Prime Minister and his aides are well aware of this position. They are not considering compromising the situation by accepting the return of only two victims. There is too much information that other abductees are still alive.

Typically, North Korea approaches Japan only when it is in trouble. And even then, they have consistently lied. A critical moment is coming. Led by the Prime Minister, it's time for an all-Japan effort to demand the immediate repatriation of all abductees.


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1120 in Japanese on February 19 and in English on February 21, 2024.)

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

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