OBAMA, Fukui Pref. — Japan’s plans to extend emergency food aid to North Korea have been welcomed by the international community as a great humanitarian gesture.
But for relatives of Japanese who are believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents and taken to the reclusive country, there is concern that diplomats and politicians will give away food without any promises from Pyongyang to account for those who disappeared.
“It’s fine to assist North Korea by giving food aid, but the Japanese government should first press to find out what has become of those who were kidnapped,” said Tamotsu Chimura, a resident of Obama, a coastal town on the Sea of Japan. “Right now, all the government is doing is agreeing to North Korean demands for food without insisting on anything in return.”
Chimura’s anger stems from nearly a quarter-century of frustration. On the evening of July 7, 1978, his son, Yasushi, 23, and his 22-year old fiancee, Fukie Hamamoto, told their families they were going out for dinner at a restaurant near the beach. Fukui police say the couple left the restaurant shortly after 8 p.m.
They were never seen again. A massive search, involving over 5,000 people, turned up no clues. Yasushi’s truck was discovered on a hilltop in the area. There were no indications of foul play.
For years afterward, Tamotsu Chimura and Yuko Hamamoto, the older brother of Fukie, searched in vain. Then, both men heard stories about people being allegedly abducted by North Korean agents along the Japan Sea, including the 1977 Niigata case in which 13-year-old Megumi Yokota disappeared.
“That’s when I realized that there was no other explanation. Yasushi and Fukie must have been kidnapped in the same way,” the older Hamamoto said.
Chimura and Hamamoto, along with others who believe their loved ones were abducted to North Korea, began pressuring the Japanese government to explore the issue.
In 1988, the late Seiroku Kajiyama, then home affairs minister, told a Diet committee there were suspicions that Japanese had been abducted, but it wasn’t until 1997 that the government declared that 10 Japanese, including Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto, had probably been kidnapped by North Korean agents in seven separate incidents.
The government’s admission after so many years of silence angered relatives of the missing, who felt that diplomats and politicians were trying to sweep the issue under the carpet.
“The Japanese government has never officially complained to international organs like the United Nations and the Japanese ambassador to the U.N. has never brought up the issue,” Hamamoto said. “Why? Because Japan is anxious about getting a seat on the Security Council and doesn’t want to rock the boat.”
The families, exasperated by what both Chimura and Hamamoto described as government stonewalling, decided to tell the world themselves. In April 1998, they took out a full page ad in the New York Times, criticizing Japan’s intention to supply food to North Korea and calling for an investigation into the disappearances. The ad was followed up by a symposium in Tokyo in July 1998.
An Myon Jin, a former North Korean spy who defected to South Korea in 1993 and claims to have seen Megumi Yokota, came to Japan and offered to give official testimony in the Diet two years ago. His offer was refused, although he was allowed to speak in an unofficial capacity to lawmakers looking into the issue.
An claims to have seen Japanese people teaching at a special school for North Korean spies. One of the teachers, An said, was brought to North Korea as a teenager in the mid-1970s, eluding to Yokota.
Over the past few months, however, Chimura and Hamamoto said they have been given more public support by politicians. Meeting with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on Sept. 12, Chimura, Hamamoto and other relatives were told that progress toward normalizing ties with North Korea would not be possible without resolving the kidnapping issue.
Yet other politicians, even within the Liberal Democratic Party, insist that normalization talks should proceed first and not depend on resolving the abduction issue.
“Many politicians and some in the Foreign Ministry don’t want to tie the food supply issue to the kidnapping issue,” Hamamoto said. “But just giving North Korea food and money and not insisting on anything in return is a sign of weakness.”
At the same time Chimura and Hamamoto are angry, they are also wondering what else the government knows about the kidnappings.
“Where did the government get the figure of 10 Japanese abducted? They refuse to say. Politicians have stated publicly that our relatives were probably kidnapped by North Korea, but they refuse to explain why or offer any evidence to support their claims,” Hamamoto said.
The answer is probably connected to the dozens of nationwide reports of disappearances, kidnappings and testimony by North Koreans themselves. In July 1978, the same month Chimura and Hamamoto disappeared, a Japanese couple just managed to escape capture by men believed to have been North Korean agents.
Then there was the North Korean agent, posing as a Japanese, who was convicted in Seoul of blowing a South Korean jetliner out of the sky in 1987. She said she was tutored in Japanese by a Japanese woman who was apparently abducted from Tokyo.
Before and after this incident, speed boats linked to North Korea and bodies clad in North Korean uniforms were discovered at a number of sites on the Japan Sea coast. Last March near Obama, one such uniform was found.
“The police and the government are definitely hiding information,” Chimura said. “North Korea kidnapped our loved ones, but it often feels like the Japanese government is our real enemy.”