North looks to divide Tokyo and Seoul over abduction issue

by Reiji Yoshida

The dramatic public appearance of Kim Young Nam, a South Korean who was believed kidnapped to North Korea, shed no new light on the mystery surrounding the abduction in 1977 of Megumi Yokota, who later became his wife.

Despite Pyongyang’s claims, echoed by Kim, that Yokota killed herself in 1994, her family remains unconvinced that she is dead.

But observers in Tokyo said Kim’s tearful one-time reunion Wednesday with his mother and sister at a North Korean resort and news conference the next day make at least one thing clear: The North wants to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Seoul over the abduction issue.

“The North is worried about a situation where public opinion in South Korea and Japan work in tandem” on the kidnappings, said Shunji Hiraiwa, an expert on Korea and a professor at the University of Shizuoka.

Pyongyang has tried to present the brief reunion as an emotional family event and a symbol of North-South reconciliation, Hiraiwa said, while at the same time downplaying its abduction of South Koreans.

During Thursday’s news conference, Kim called on the media not to focus on the abduction issue and instead look to the future, the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo said.

“It won’t benefit anyone to dig up minor things that happened in the past,” Kim said, alluding to the abductions.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2002 that Pyongyang abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and ’80s and claimed that eight, including Yokota, are dead. Japan suspects more of its citizens were also seized by the North, and the issue has continued to get a great deal of media coverage in Japan, at times nearly drowning out reports on Pyongyang’s nuclear arms and missile programs.

In South Korea, by contrast, the abduction issue has drawn far less attention even though hundreds of its citizens are thought to have been snatched by the North. Critics say this is because the government and public are loath to endanger the “Sunshine Policy” of pursuing friendlier ties with Pyongyang.

When Yokota’s husband was first identified as Kim a few months ago, Japanese officials had hoped it would help win sympathy among South Koreans over the fate of the hundreds of their own nationals who were abducted and prompt Seoul to take a tougher line toward the North. But they have been disappointed by the response to date.

“The South Korean government says it is willing to work hand in hand (with Japan) over the abduction issue, but it is in fact rather unlikely,” one Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said after watching Kim’s news conference on TV.

“I don’t think (Seoul) will do so under the current government of President Roh Moo Hyun,” a strong “Sunshine Policy” advocate.

To turn up the heat on Pyongyang, Koizumi brought up the abduction issue during his Thursday summit with President George W. Bush in Washington. Tokyo is also hoping to raise the issue at the July Group of Eight in Russia.

But Shizuoka University’s Hiraiwa believes the keen focus in Japan on the abduction issue may be counterproductive, arguing the Japanese public and government are allowing it to interfere with its broader diplomatic goals with respect to North Korea.

If Japan is too strident on the issue, Pyongyang may dig in its heels and refuse to budge on its nuclear threat, which in turn could directly affect Japan’s national security, Hiraiwa said.

Japan has refused to provide economic aid to the North or to establish diplomatic ties until the abduction issue is resolved.

“You cannot solve the abduction issue in isolation (from other problems). To change the North, you have to resolve the nuclear (arms) and missile programs at the same time,” he said.