A sign from North Korea

The parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korea in November 1977, met their granddaughter, Kim Eun Gyong, for the first time in Ulan Bator from March 10 to 14. Japan needs to step up efforts to deepen dialogue with North Korea so that the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s can be resolved in a reasonable manner.

In doing so, Japan should be careful not to let itself be duped by North Korea, which could try for maximum diplomatic leverage without progressing toward a resolution of the abduction issue.

The Japanese government recognizes that 17 Japanese nationals have been kidnapped by North Korea. Five of them were allowed to return to Japan in October 2002 following a meeting in Pyongyang in September of that year between then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jung Il, the late North Korean leader.

Yokota, who was 13 years old when she was abducted from the city of Niigata, became a symbol of the abduction issue, which has long-embittered ties between Japan and North Korea.

In the 2002 Pyongyang meeting, North Korea admitted to having abducted Japanese nationals, apologized, and promised not to repeat such acts. In November 2004, North Korea repatriated what it claimed to be Yokota’s remains. But DNA tests in Japan proved that the remains were not Yokota’s.

In 2006, Kim Young Nam, an abducted South Korean said to be Yokota’s husband, said she killed herself in 1994. Yokota’s father, Shigeru, and her mother, Sakie, believe their daughter is still alive.

The encounter between the Yokotas and their granddaughter took place at a time when North Korea is isolated diplomatically due to its nuclear weapons and missiles development program and the execution in December of Jang Song Thaek, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s uncle, who was close to China and considered the country’s No. 2 official. The North cannot hope to improve its relations with the United States. Its ties with China are chilly because of the execution of Jang.

It is likely that Pyongyang wants to improve its relations with Tokyo in order to get economic assistance. It’s possible that Pyongyang seeks to soften Tokyo’s attitude and end discussions on the abduction issue by taking advantage of the Yokotas’ meeting in Ulan Bator. Japan should not allow the North to use the encounter as a means to draw the curtain on the abduction issue.

North Korea adheres to its official stance that the abduction issue has been resolved. It is important for Japan to have North Korea follow through on the August 2008 agreement between Tokyo and Pyongyang, under which North Korea and Japan were to set up a joint committee to investigate the fate of Japanese abductees in exchange for Japan’s lifting of some of its economic sanctions.

Tokyo, for its part, should admit that its sanctions toward Pyongyang have not worked. Japanese products are finding their way to the North Korean capital. Japan should realize that North Korea will survive even if it strengthens its sanctions.

In future talks with Japan, North Korea may try to get Japan to slacken its sanctions and to agree to hold talks for normalizing diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and Tokyo as well as to end discussions on the abduction issue. Japan should work out a careful strategy that will lead to a true resolution of the abduction issue while persevering with efforts to talk with the North.