“My mission will not be completed until Shigeru and Sakie Yokota hold their daughter Megumi in their arms,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a speech delivered in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on July 19, referring to the girl who is among a number of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents during the 1970s and ’80s and whose whereabouts are still unknown.
Abe has made resolution of the abduction issue his most important agenda item and the future of his administration hinges on the outcome of his efforts.
Before Abe’s speech, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency announced July 4 that a new round of investigation into the fate of the abductees would be launched by a special investigation commission headed by So Dae Ha, who was the No. 2 man of the State Security Department (SSD), doubling as a high-ranking member of the National Defense Commission.
The creation of the special investigation commission was a result of a series of talks between Japanese and North Korean government officials that started late last year, in which Tokyo repeatedly asked Pyongyang to look into the matter anew through the SSD.
What sort of organization is the SSD, which Japan hopes will play a crucial role in probing the abduction issue?
The SSD became independent from the Ministry of People’s Security in 1973 when Kim Jong Il, who was to rule the country from 1994 to 2011, became the head of the propaganda department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, ensuring that he would become the next leader by succeeding his father Kim Il Sung. The SSD is said to be patterned after the KGB (Committee for State Security) of the Soviet Union.
Kim used the body not only for counter-intelligence activities within the country but also as a secret police organ to crack down on anti-government elements and those dissatisfied with the ruling regime.
The SSD is feared by ordinary citizens as it places informers in every corner of the country. One story has it that a man was arrested after saying during a meal at his home that the government was to blame for food shortages. His wife ratted on him to the SSD.
The SSD goes after anti-government elements not only within the country but also in other parts of the world. For example, when Kim Hyon Hui, a former North Korean agent responsible for blowing up a Korean Air Lines jetliner in 1987, escaped to South Korea and started confessing, her father, then stationed in Angola on a government assignment, was “promoted” to a new post in Moscow, where he was taken into custody by SSD officers, brought back to North Korea and put into an internment camp.
Human rights organizations of the U.S. and South Korea estimate that between 100,000 and 150,000 North Koreans are living in internment camps. Many of them will never be released, and those who are lucky enough to be freed are forced to sign a pledge that they will never speak about what they have seen or heard in the camps.
Members of the SSD are known for their close ties with the powers that be, because Pyongyang’s strongman, Kim Jong Il, after becoming chairman of the National Defense Commission, served as the de facto head of both the SSD and the Organization and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party.
Particularly close to Kim was Ryu Gyong, the second-highest official in the SSD ranks, often referred to as “Mr. X,” who is said to have exercised power in keeping a watch over high-ranking officials of the ruling party. He prepared for the first Japan-North Korea summit meeting in 2002 between Kim and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. For this role and for arranging former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang in 2009, Ryu was awarded the nation’s highest honor twice.
After suffering cerebral apoplexy in August 2008, however, Kim became fixated on holding power and started trying to further strengthen his grip over three organizations he had long relied on — the military, the party leadership and the SSD — by downsizing and weakening them.
Playing a leading role in this scheme was Jang Sung Taek, who was Kim’s brother-in-law. As part of his moves, Zhang is said to have killed Ryu and his relatives around February 2010.
But Kim’s death in December 2011 triggered “revenge” from leading figures of the three organizations, who in March 2013 gathered at Samjiyon County near Mount Paektu and agreed to chase Jang from power. In May, they told Kim Jong Un, who had succeeded his father Kim Jong Il as the North’s leader, that Jang was a villain trying to take possession of economic interests being provided by the military to Kim and to monopolize the secret police. This conspiracy worked. Infuriated Kim is said to have ordered liquidation of Jang.
Since then, the leaders from the three organizations, known as the “Samjiyon Group,” are directly assisting Kim Jong Un. They are doing things in a despotic manner by taking advantage of their boss’s lack of experience and ability.
It is against this background that the SSD has come to the forefront of the North’s talks with Japan. The main player is known only as “Mr. X, the Second,” a stocky man in his 50s well known among Japanese Foreign Ministry officials trained in the Korean language.
While he is naturally very close to Kim, Mr. X II is a cautious man and does not appear at the table for negotiations between the North and Japan. But he was in Stockholm in May, and Beijing in July, when high-ranking bureaucrats from the two countries were meeting there. He was in these two cities to have behind-the-scenes contact with Keiichi Ono, director of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Northeast Asia Division, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service.
The Japanese government believes that the SSD holds the key to resolving the abduction issue for two reasons:
(1) The SSD supervises the secret organization for covert operations that abducted Japanese nationals.
Kim Jong Il ordered the abduction as a preparatory step for his scheme of infiltrating South Korea. At the time of the Koizumi-Kim Jong Il summit meeting in 2002, the North asserted that Megumi Yokota and several other abductees had died. But the Japanese government had a tip deemed fairly accurate that some of them were still alive.
The North’s not returning abductees was attributed to the secret covert operation organization’s attempt to conceal the fact for fear of being held to account.
The Japanese side now is hopeful that the powerful SSD can exercise its authority to carry out an investigation and to have the truth disclosed.
(2) The SSD currently has a close relationship with Kim Jong Un.
Kim’s father once declared that all problems related to the abduction of Japanese nationals by his country had been resolved. Kim is the only person with the power to reverse or correct what Kim Jong Il said. The SSD may be characterized as an organization that has the power to persuade the younger Kim to make such a change.
North Korea will likely submit to Japan an interim report on the reinvestigation of the fate of the abductees late this month at the earliest.
It may soon become clear whether the Japanese government’s decision to bet on the power and ability of the SSD was justified.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.