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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

The International Search for a Path to Bring Home the Abductees

It has been more than 40 years for many families whose loved ones were abducted by agents of North Korea. In the meantime, North Korean people are also suffering. Is there a way forward?



June 29, 2021 online international symposium in the UN on the abductions issue.



YOKOTA Megumi (center) with her brothers Takuya and Tetsuya, before she was abducted by North Korean agents.

What is a way forward for the relationship between Japan and North Korea? 

This was the underlying theme of the Online Symposium in the UN on the Abductions Issue on June 29.

Without exception, the victims’ families want action, before they and their loved ones who are detained in North Korea become too old to see each other again. “It is important to take actions actively as a responsible sovereign nation” stressed Mr. YOKOTA Takuya, Secretary-General of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN), adding “We must stop North Korea’s outrageous acts.” 

“Is the government really serious about getting them back?” asked Ms. UEMURA Mitsuko, whose daughter Rumi’s disappearance in 1995 is thought to be presumably related to the abductions by North Korea. 

Family members of Japanese victims who participated in the Online Symposium in the UN on the Abductions Issue on June 29.

More than 40 years have passed, and the frustration was evident among the family members representing victims from Japan, the United States, Romania and Thailand.

My 85 years old mother is exhausted,” said Mr. Yokota, pleading for action to bring his sister home. His father passed away last year, without seeing his daughter whose return he had expected for more than 40 years.

The Online Symposium in the UN on the Abductions Issue on June 29, 2021.

International Resolution

This June, a firm resolution was demonstrated by the ambassadors of the co-hosting nations, the Government of Australia, Japan, the United States, and the European Union. In a refreshing lift, the symposium succeeded in raising a few new ideas on bringing the international community together to resolve the abductions issue.  

Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield called upon North Korea to “release these individuals and allow them to leave North Korea . . . the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) must release full information about them now, without further delay,” while Permanent Representative - Head of the EU Delegation to the UN, Ambassador Olof Skoog emphasized that the international abductions are “completely unacceptable on the international level”. He said “Japan can share this issue with so many others”, also referring to victims from many other countries, including more than 500 Koreans who are abductees.

Permanent Representative of Australia to the UN, Mitch Fifield broadly included the concerns of countries with shared values on human rights while referring to the 2014 report of the Commision of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, led by former High Court Justice of Australia Michael Kirby, which found the abductions to be crimes against humanity. 

Cases of the abductions of Japanese and other foreigners by agents of the North Korean regime have continued for over four decades. While a handful of abductees returned to Japan in 2002 after then-Japanese Prime Minister KOIZUMI Junichiro visited Pyongyang, the vast majority of victims remain in North Korea, forbidden from any contact with their families or the outside world. 

Thailand Anocha Panchoi
Romania Doina Bumbea
American David Sneddon

Human Lives at Stake

The theme that the time for action has come reverberated among the family representatives participating from Japan, the U.S., Romania and Thailand.

Mr. IIZUKA Koichiro’s mother was abducted when he was only 1 year old, but North Korea denied her abduction until September 2002, when then-PM Koizumi met then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. Years of attempts at dialogue since then have yielded no progress


Mr. Iizuka would like to see an end to this circular approach with no results. He said “Now is the time for the North Korean leader to make the decision to immediately return all abductees, and to pave the way for a new and brighter future”. However, he warned the families will not compromise.

“Our loved ones have been under the strict control of the North Korean government for 40 years,” said Mr. YOKOTA Takuya. He called on Chairman Kim Jong Un to resolve the abductions issue and return home the victims immediately. 

Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister in charge of the Abductions Issue of Japan KATO Katsunobu

Perspectives Worthy of Another Look

The economy is a key, explained Professor of Nanzan University Dr. HIRAIWA Shunji , discussing how to get North Korea back to dialogue on the nuclear, missile and abductions issue. 

Professor HIRAIWA Shunji

This has not been ignored by the Japanese government. Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister in Charge of the Abduction Issue KATO Katsunobu said the abductions issue is a “critical issue concerning the sovereignty of Japan,” emphasizing return of the victims, along with settlement of the nuclear and missile issues along the lines of the Pyongyang Declaration would open the door for development of North Korea’s economy and resolution of issues in the two countries’ unfortunate past.

Mr. Frank Jannuzi

A key question is how to engage North Korea to get there.

Mr. Frank Jannuzi, President and CEO of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and a longtime associate of U.S. President Joe Biden, emphasized the Biden Administration was looking for the “sweet spot” between failed initiatives in the past and would be a good partner in “trying to bring peace, denuclearization and human rights to the Korean Peninsula”.

More than isolated incidents, the abductions were “part of a systematic state policy, the chain of command going up to the Kim family,” explained expert and former South Korean human rights envoy, Mr. Lee Jung Hoon, picking up points raised by Australian Ambassador Fifield and other co-hosts.

Professor Lee Jung Hoon

Citing the continuing crime of the abductions and other atrocities, Professor Lee pointed out that actions of North Korea clearly violate a number of international treaties to which it is a party, and the international community should hold them fully responsible for compliance. Indeed, Lee’s human rights expertise and sense of global responsibility set him apart as he brought together the North’s obligations under international law with ideas that haven’t been fully tested in the past. 

Enumerating Pyongyang’s flouted commitments under Article2, Paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter, which explicitly forbid territorial violations like those used in the abductions, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, among others, Lee raised the question why the international community treats North Korea as a normal nation in international institutions.

Kim Yo Jong and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Inter-Korean Liaison Office blown up by North Korea.

Professor Lee referred to the global unity that stamped out South Africa’s institutionalized racism and human rights abuse known as apartheid in the early 1990s. In this case, there was the international community’s exclusion of South Africa from participation in international sporting events and institutions until its human rights abuses ended. North Korea, on the other hand, has been allowed to continue as a participant in UN institutions while disdaining its international obligations. 

This, he suggests, is where the focus should move next, as a step with the potential to move the international community toward resolution of the abductions and other human rights abuses in North Korea. Considering the lives and humanitarian values at stake, it is worth a try. 

Some of the victims abducted by North Korea that have been identified by the Government of Japan.

And Professor of Osaka School of International Public Policy, Osaka University HOSHINO Toshiya, master of ceremonies for the event, noted in his wrap-up that the return of the abductees and the early realization of their return must be firmly incorporated in the process of searching for “sweet spot”. 

Author: JAPAN Forward

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