Jin Matsubara, newly appointed minister in charge of the North Korean abduction issue, hopes to take advantage of the helm change in Pyongyang to resolve the dispute, which has raged for decades.
The government officially lists 17 Japanese as being abducted, including five who were repatriated in 2002.
Negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang have been in a deadlock since, and the North’s position under leader Kim Jong Il was that the matter was resolved and no abductees remain alive. But with his death last month and his son, Kim Jong Un, inheriting the regime, Matsubara hopes to see positive change.
“The new government . . . is not led by Kim Jong Il. It has the opportunity to change its policy, to take a new direction,” Matsubara said during a recent interview. “I think the new leader will come to realize that in order to become accepted by the international community, (the North) can’t avoid resolving the abduction issue.”
A sign of change came out of the blue last week when two Japanese nationals who had been held in North Korea for alleged drug-smuggling and other charges were returned. They had been in custody since last March.
“I believe North Korea is sending a message, and there is a possibility it intends to create a new image,” Matsubara said.
Japan in recent years has leveled various economic sanctions against the hermit state, including a total trade ban, after Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests and test-launched missiles.
Last week, Matsubara stressed that Japan would not pull back on the sanctions.
“I think that with time, there is a possibility of strengthening sanctions against North Korea, not weakening them,” he said.
“North Korea needs to show concrete evidence that it is moving in the direction of resolving the abduction issue, and I believe now is not the time to be weakening sanctions against Pyongyang.”
Time is running out for many aging relatives of the Japanese who have been missing for more than 30 years.
Although the government only recognizes 17 people as abductees, it is believed the number is much higher. The Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea, a group of academics, legal experts, journalists and others, estimates there are a couple of hundred.
But Matsubara appeared reluctant to expand the official list.
The government has recognized the 17 abductees “as a result of ceaseless investigations,” he said. “I do not deny (the possibility of) reviewing the recognition standards, (but) we must be careful, given that the impact of making a mistake could be severe.”
Although no progress has been made since 2002, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made two historic trips to Pyongyang and managed to bring home five abductees, and later got their families out of the North, the relatives of those still missing haven’t given up hope, and now they’re placing it on Matsubara.
He is already the sixth minister in charge of the abduction issue since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in 2009. But he is also known to have been actively engaged in the issue for years, acting as a key member of a nonpartisan group of lawmakers trying to bring any survivors home, and has a strong bond with the relatives.
The 55-year-old conservative stressed that while diplomacy should be consistent and led by the foreign minister, the government should use various channels to communicate with the North.
“Diplomacy should be unified, but I don’t think this issue will be resolved if we do not attempt to reach out on various levels,” Matsubara said. “I want to resolve this issue without eliminating any chances of contact.”