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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

Three Ways to Rescue the Abduction Victims From North Korea

Rescuing the abduction victims is a race against time. A renowned expert on Japan-Korean relations explains the feasibility of three ways they could be saved.

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Families of those identified as missing persons possibly related to North Korea gathered on October 21 in Shinjuku. (©Sankei by Kanata Iwasaki)

Two organizations have been campaigning for decades for the immediate and collective repatriation of the Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. These groups are the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN) and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN). As a member of both organizations, I will discuss the three methods by which we may bring back the abduction victims. 

Method 1: A Rescue Operation

The first method is a rescue operation, and it requires force. Since the abductions are a clear violation of national sovereignty, Japan would simply be exercising its right of self-defense with a covert rescue operation. However, in peacetime and the absence of information about the abductees' current whereabouts, such an operation is unrealistic.

Japan could resort to this method if North Korea were in a state of chaos. A full-scale military attack by the Korean People's Army (KPA) on South Korea could also enable a rescue mission. With the United States and South Korean forces advancing on Pyongyang, Japan could infiltrate North Korea and rescue the victims. In this case, South Korea and the US could assist Japan's Self-Defense Forces in executing the mission. 

Method 2: US-Backed Negotiations

The second method is negotiations aimed at stopping North Korea's nuclear program. For these negotiations to work, the US must pressure North Korea, and Tokyo and Washington must present a united front. This method would be based on discussions, not force.

Considerable US military pressure on the nuclear issue could bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Japan could then raise the return of abductees as an issue for discussion, along with missiles and denuclearization. Once these three issues are resolved, Tokyo and Washington could consider lifting sanctions and providing large-scale economic assistance to Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Un inspects the test launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-18 on July 12. (©KCNA via Chosun News Agency)

Return of Five Abductees

It is worth noting that this method has proved successful in the past. In September 2001, terrorists struck the United States in simultaneous attacks. Thereafter, in January 2002, President George W Bush explicitly denounced North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as an "axis of evil." Bush declared that he would stop North Korea's nuclear development, even if it meant war. 

At the time, North Korea had breached the Geneva Agreed Framework (1994). As stipulated in the framework, North Korea was to freeze its nuclear reactors and facilities and eventually dismantle them. In return, the US would supply North Korea with heavy oil until it had completed the process. However, North Korea was secretly proceeding with the production of enriched uranium with technology from Pakistan. When the Bush administration learned of this, it maximized its military pressure on Pyongyang. 

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Seeking to break the deadlock, Kim Jong Il entered talks with Japan. If he could normalize diplomatic relations, Kim knew Japan could supply extensive economic assistance to North Korea. The first Japan-North Korea summit was held under this framework. As a result, North Korea allowed five victims to return to Japan.

Kaoru Hasuike, a former abductee, addresses students at a junior high school in Niigata City on October 17. (© Sankei by Kenichi Honda)

The Trump Administration

A similar situation occurred during the US-North Korea nuclear crisis in 2017 and the US-North Korea summits in 2018 and 2019. 

US President Donald Trump's administration applied military pressure on North Korea to stop it from developing nuclear weapons. In response, Kim Jong Un, the General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), began negotiating with the United States. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been waiting for this moment. He had repeatedly emphasized to Trump the gravity of the abductions issue and Japan's determination to make no concessions on it.

US President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. (©REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Trump raised the abductions issue three times during his summit meeting with Kim Jong Un. In Hanoi in 2019, he brought up the issue again during a one-on-one talk with Kim at the beginning of the meeting. He also mentioned it again at a small dinner party afterward. A senior White House official informed us that Kim Jong Un gave quite a "meaningful response."

Trump made it clear to North Korea that he would lift sanctions if it abandoned its nuclear weapons. However, he said he would not provide economic aid. This is just my theory, but Trump may have urged Kim to meet with Abe. Trump could have told Kim that Japan was willing to provide massive economic assistance, but not without resolving the abductions issue first. However, these negotiations fell apart in the first stage of discussions over North Korean ballistic missile tests. Consequently, Abe was unable to visit Pyongyang. 

On the Back Burner

So, how does the issue currently stand? US President Joe Biden is busy vying for global hegemony with China and with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. His administration has devoted little energy to the North Korean nuclear issue. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un has indicated he has no intention of abolishing North Korea's nuclear stockpile. On the contrary, he has become more radical, writing nuclear arms into the constitution.

Therefore, we, the members of AFVKN and NARKN, propose negotiations between Japan and North Korea focusing solely on the abductions. This is the third method: negotiations conducted by Japan alone and independent of the nuclear issue.

Method 3: Japan Negotiates Alone

Time is of the essence. The parents and families of abductees who spearheaded the rescue movement are passing away one after another.

In October, the Fumio Kishida administration began taking a new approach to repatriating the abductees. Kishida characterized the abductions issue as "separate" from the nuclear issue. He also called on Pyongyang to hold a Japan-North Korea summit, describing it as a "time-sensitive human rights issue." 

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Kishida's new policy represents a significant change. A comprehensive resolution of the abductions, nuclear, and missile issues has long been a condition for the normalization of diplomatic relations. Yoshihide Suga and Abe, the past two prime ministers, maintained this stance at least publicly.

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)

Permitting Humanitarian Aid With Conditions

How might Japan acquire the international community's understanding and approval for these solo negotiations? We at the AFVKN and NARKN have given much thought to the challenge. Japan cannot be the only country to begin providing economic assistance to North Korea while the nuclear issue is ongoing. Humanitarian aid, such as food and fertilizer, would be a way to make progress on the abductions issue without violating UN sanctions.

In the late 1990s, North Korea experienced a major famine in which more than three million people died of starvation. The situation improved in the 2000s with South Korean Presidents Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun sending large-scale humanitarian aid. Recently, however, the country has been plunged back into crisis due to the border closure to stem the spread of COVID-19

North Korea wants humanitarian aid. We will not oppose Japan's provision of humanitarian assistance to North Korea. However, it must agree to collectively repatriate all abductees to Japan while their parents and families are still alive. This is the new action policy we adopted in February 2023.

Pyongyang Likely to Engage

At a national rally on May 27, Kishida stated, "In particular, the abductions of Japanese nationals, an issue whose resolution has time constraints, is a human rights issue about which we cannot let our mindfulness dwindle for even a moment, as the families of the victims continue to age." 

Kishida further emphasized the importance of the abductions, saying, "At the same time, Japan will press forward proactively, engaging in high-level consultations while reporting directly to me, to bring about summit-level talks at an early time." 

Just two days later, on May 29, Pyongyang responded with a statement from its vice foreign minister, Pak Sang Gil. In the statement, Pak said, "There is no reason for North Korea and Japan not to meet." 

North Korea's reaction was unprecedentedly fast. It should be noted that any messages North Korea issues to the outside world must first receive Kim Jong Un's approval. 

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Kishida delivered his speech at around 2:30 pm on May 27. It seems that Pyongyang immediately transcribed his speech, translated it into Korean, and presented it to Kim. Kim would then have instructed his officials to make a statement and have them prepare a draft for him to approve. This process occurred over a single weekend, indicating Pyongyang's considerable interest in negotiating with Japan.

Therefore, we believe that Kishida's new approach, the third method listed above, could succeed.

Proceed With Caution

Since then, there have been no public signs of activity from either side for approximately six months. However, negotiations on such a sensitive issue are bound to be conducted in secret. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who also serves as minister in charge of the abductions issue, retained his post in the September cabinet reshuffle. Kishida may have judged that replacing Matsuno would hinder the negotiations behind the scenes.

However, North Korea has no qualms about lying in negotiations and has done so in the past. Therefore, Japan must proceed with caution. At the same time, we should gather as much accurate information as possible on the abductees. It is crucial to ascertain their survival and whereabouts, as the decisive moment is fast approaching. 

Megumi Yokota's mother, Sakie Yokota, and Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno visit an exhibition with memorabilia and photos of Megumi Yokota, a victim of North Korea's abductions, on August 2. (Pool photo)

Three Forms of North Korea's Abductions

Although these Japan-North Korea talks are promising, Japan must avoid falling for any of North Korea's lies. To this end, it is essential that the public shares an understanding and overview of the abductions. In my many years of involvement in the issue, I have come to a greater understanding of the nature of the abductions issue. In this section, I would like to cover some basic points. 

Here is a general guide on the three forms of North Korea's abductions.

  1. Random abductions: North Korean agents who have infiltrated Japan for purposes other than abduction kidnap subjects they happen to come across.
  2. Abductions of specified targets: Agents research the abduction candidates in advance and decide on the targets.
  3. Criteria-based abductions: Agents abduct targets they encounter who meet specific criteria. For example, a young girl or a young couple. Agents do not conduct any preliminary investigation for these types of kidnappings. 

While types one and two were well-documented forms of abduction, type three was not. I discovered this while working with the late journalist Osamu Eya, visiting abduction sites and agent infiltration and escape routes throughout Japan.

The Hasuikes and Megumi Yokota

Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike, abductees who returned to Japan in 2002, testified about their ordeal. The couple was visiting a beach in Kashiwazaki, Niigata when agents attacked them. Apparently, the agents had originally been targeting a different couple. However, the appearance of a drunkard forced them to abort the operation. Instead, they kidnapped Hasuike and his then-girlfriend. They were not pre-selected targets, but agents abducted them because they fit the criteria of a "young couple." 

In the case of abductee Megumi Yokota, the condition was that she be a young woman. Initially, the view was that Megumi was abducted when she happened to spot an agent using a radio device. In other words, we considered it a random abduction. However, we later ruled this out as it was pitch black, and visibility was poor at the time of the kidnapping. 

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

Tsutomu 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.

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