March 2017 marks twenty years since the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea formed a group to represent their concerns. On the eve of this anniversary, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for an exclusive interview with Yukan Fuji—the Sankei Shimbun’s evening newspaper—in which he said that solving the abduction issue, a stark example of state-sponsored human rights violations, was his top priority.
“We will bring the abductees home” he said unequivocally, saying that he discussed the abduction issue with U.S. president Donald J. Trump during their summit in February. He also talked about North Korea’s developing nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs in blatant violation of international law, as well as the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
In 2002, North Korea first admitted to abducting Japanese citizens, the same year that five abductees came home to Japan. Before then, the abductions were referred to as “suspected abductions.”
Prime Minister Abe has been involved with the abduction issue since he served as secretary for his father, foreign minister Shintaro Abe. Abe has thus strong ties to the families of the abductees.
An Asahi Shimbun editorial published on August 31, 1999, read, in part, “There are many obstacles to the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and North Korea, not least of which is the suspected abduction of Japanese citizens.” Odd phrasing such as this was brazenly given a pass. The situation when the family council for relatives of abductees was formed twenty years ago was even more difficult than it is now, I think. It was only the burning intention of the families themselves that eventually brought about the homecoming of five abduction victims.
Abe believes that Japan could have prevented the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea:
In September of 1977, Yutaka Kume was abducted. He was 52 at the time. Approximately one month later, Kyoko Matsumoto, then 29, was abducted. One month later, Yokota Megumi was taken. She was just 13. All of these people were kidnapped by North Korea.
The Prime Minister began to speak forcefully:
When Mr. Kume was abducted, an arrest was made but the prosecution did not pursue the case. If Japan had been fully aware that abductions were taking place at the time, then Megumi Yokota’s abduction might very well have been prevented. The abduction issue is one that everyone should consider, as it affects the country as a whole. We are still faced with the problem of not having been able to protect a thirteen-year-old girl.
Abe is working unflaggingly towards bringing the abductees home.
The February 10th summit with Trump was one part of this effort. Abe reports telling Trump that “many Japanese people have been abducted, including a thirteen-year-old girl. The resolution of this issue,” he continued, “is the most important issue of my administration.” Abe said that the President took the issue very seriously. The joint statement released following their meeting was the first time that a Japanese prime minister and U.S. president explicitly stated that the two leaders “completely agreed on the importance of the early solution for the abduction issue.”
How will the United States and Japan work together on the abduction issue henceforth?
I want to strengthen information-sharing between the United States and Japan, including on the abduction issue. The American president is the most powerful person in the world. Getting the president to understand the abduction issue and then express his intention to work with Japan on solving it was a major feature of my most recent visit to the United States.
The pace of North Korea’s provocations has been increasing as it squares off with its neighbors. On February 12, North Korea successfully launched a new type of medium-range ballistic missile, seemingly timed to coincide with the Japan-U.S. summit. The very next day, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in Malaysia. It was reported that the North Korean state was suspected of involvement in the assassination. At a press conference held on February 22, the Malaysian police announced that they had asked a second secretary working at the North Korean embassy in Malaysia, who was a material witness in the case, to turn himself in to the authorities along with other persons of interest.
Abe was asked to offer his impression of Kim Jong-un:
We are now gathering information while also working closely with the countries that have some kind of connection to the Kim Jong-nam assassination. Unfortunately, we have not yet assembled enough materials to allow for a judgment to be made as to just who Kim Jong-un is. Whoever he is, we must make him understand that unless the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues are resolved, North Korea will continue on its path of increasing isolation from the rest of the world and should expect nothing but a dark future ahead.
Some people are calling for a summit meeting between Abe and Kim Jong-un as a way to achieve a breakthrough in the current situation. But Abe has so far been cool to the idea.
I am prepared to consider all options in order to resolve the abduction issue. At the same time, there is no point in having a discussion simply for discussion’s sake. I think that it is, conversely, inadvisable for me to meet with Kim Jong-un in order to make a show out of shaking hands with him. A meeting that produces no results will be to the advantage only of the North Korean government. I have absolutely no plans to do any such thing.
When asked at the end of the interview about his thoughts on the abductees’ families, Abe began to speak of the scene at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport when some abductees came home in October 2002.
At that time, the parents of Megumi Yokota were the representatives of the family council. The Yokotas happily embraced the five returning abductees as they walked down the airplane gangway to the tarmac, but, unfortunately, their daughter was not among the five. The Yokotas took pictures out of a sense of duty as representatives of the family council, but they cried as they realized that their daughter had not been among the returnees.
Abe fell silent as he called to mind the 15 years of joys and sorrows that have elapsed since 2002. He then strained to resume talking as he haltingly spoke the following promise.
When I saw the sadness that the Yokotas were suffering, I resolved that Megumi would be brought back home. Now that I am prime minister, the expectation that I will keep this promise is even greater. I must under all circumstances do what I set out to do. I have renewed my resolve to bring the abductees back to Japan.
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Masahiko Morimoto began working for the Sankei Shimbun in 1997. From 2003 to 2005, and again from 2012 to 2016, Morimoto was in charge of reporting on abduction issues at the domestic news desk of the Sankei headquarters in Tokyo.