Few could have remained unmoved by the happiness of the elderly Shigeru and Sakie Yokota televised after their meeting in Mongolia with Kim Eun Gyong, daughter of their daughter, Megumi Yokota, who had been abducted by North Koreans from Japan back in 1977 at age 13.
But why did Megumi’s parents have to wait so long for that happy meeting?
Tokyo is trying to suggest that North Korea has only just now begun to open up, following recent talks between the Red Cross societies of both countries. But that is strange. It is well known that North Korea had offered long ago to allow a meeting first in Pyongyang and later in 2010 in any third country of choice. It was Tokyo that refused.
I had long wanted to get to the bottom of the Megumi Yokota affair, for reasons I will explain. The large bureaucracy Tokyo has created to handle the abductee question had earlier refused my request to meet Megumi’s parents. So, when I saw them at the August 2013 Tokyo meeting of the U.N. Human Rights of Inquiry into North Korea, I approached them directly to ask why they had not done something to take up Pyongyang’s long-standing offer.
They reacted frankly, saying their “advisers” had told them that they could expect little from such a meeting, and that their granddaughter would be primed to say only what the North Korean authorities wanted. They had been told they should wait until Tokyo’s sanctions against North Korea had forced Pyongyang to tell the truth about her and other abductees.
But how could refusing to meet Megumi’s daughter help get to the truth about Megumi and the other abductees? Something suspicious was going on.
The abductee drama began with the sudden 2002 announcement that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi would be visiting Pyongyang to negotiate the return of people abducted during the 1970s and ’80s. And sure enough during a brief visit, Koizumi not only gained a promise to allow five abductees to visit Japan; North Korean leader Kim Jong Il apologized for the abductions, adding that there had been eight others who had since died, including Megumi who was said to have died in 1994.
On a further May 2004 visit, Koizumi gained the release of family members of those five abductees and promises from North Korea to explain how the other abductees had died. North Korea’s attempt to do that included returning some cremated bones said to be of some of the deceased abductees, including Megumi.
It was here that things began to go downhill. From the beginning, Tokyo hawks, led by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, had been unhappy about the concessions to North Korea involved in resolving the abductee question. They said there were many more than the 13 abuductees Pyongyang had admitted to, and that there could be no movement on promised reparations and normalization of relations with North Korea until all had been accounted for.
Then when a claimed DNA analysis of cremated bones said to have been of Megumi proved they did not belong to her, the hard-liners swung into action. Here was proof positive of Pyongyang’s deception, they said. Severe sanctions on North Korea were needed to force the return of all abductees including Megumi.
Soon two important Western scientific journals, Nature and Science, began to point out that DNA tests of cremated bones were impossible. I confirmed the same with the head of Japan’s chief DNA research center, a personal acquaintance. There were also severe doubts about the qualifications and even the location of the alleged DNA tester (details on the Internet).
Tokyo was also refusing to hand over the bones for further testing. Yet, on this basis, Tokyo was not only refusing further talks on normalization, aid, trade or anything else involving North Korea — talks that could have done much to discover whether there were in fact more abductees — but it was also refusing to cooperate in the “six-party talks” designed to encourage the nuclear disarmament that Tokyo was said to be demanding. The entire global effort to bring North Korea back into the family of nations was being blocked by a highly dubious DNA test on a handful of cremated bones.
Meanwhile, Tokyo was doing all it could to keep the Megumi image alive. A 2006 visit to the United States by the Yokotas to meet President George W. Bush and to address the U.S. House of Representatives was organized. Manga, songs and a TV movie about Megumi and her grieving parents were popular. Megumi had to be rescued, we were told, and anyone who seemed to differ from the right-wing view came under attack.
The diplomat who had so brilliantly negotiated the dramatic release of the original five abductees, Hitoshi Tanaka, suffered extremist right-wing threats to firebomb his house.
Why? Because, it was claimed, he had only managed to get the release of five abductees. I, too, was to be a minor victim. On a generally conservative, American Internet forum devoted to Japanese affairs, I had posted my doubts over the Megumi bone-testing affair. Soon after, I discovered that the Washington correspondent for the very right-wing Sankei Shimbun, known for two earlier attacks on respectable Japanese organizations that had allowed criticisms of Japan in their efforts to promote dialogue with the U.S., had used my posting for yet another attack, this time against both the forum and myself. I was said to have denounced the entire abductee affair as decchiage — bogus.
Overnight my employer was deluged with right-wing demands demanding my dismissal. An appointment as an outside board member of a major Japanese trading company was summarily withdrawn. Sankei refused any retraction, even after I had shown them my articles in this newspaper criticizing the cruelty of North Korea’s abductions.
I mention all this, not as self-justification, but to show both the extremism and emotionalism that do so much damage to Japan’s foreign policies.
Today, we are told, the Yokotas were allowed that meeting with their granddaughter because Pyongyang has eased its former hard line. But the right, including Sankei, continue to insist that there can be no easing up in Tokyo’s hard-line policies until all the abductees, including Megumi, are returned.
Clearly there are people out there who do not want any rapprochement with Pyongyang — who want to continue the image of a Japan threatened by enemies and needing strong military forces for defense.
Gregory Clark, a former Australian diplomat, has long been active in Japan’s education system. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at: www.gregoryclark.net