Has rightwing hijacked Japan abductee issue?

Way being paved for tougher N. Korea policy

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who says he has been “humiliated” by Prime Minister Koizumi and will never again talk to him, formed a secret alliance with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, even as his regime was preparing thousands of liters of chemical weapons to drop over Japan’s cities.

Surprised? You haven’t been reading Japan’s best-selling weekly magazine and its legions of unnamed “experts,” who portray Kim as a cross between Dr. Evil and Charlie Chaplin, fuming and “stamping his feet” over Japanese skullduggery.

The stories are just more gasoline on the bonfire of reason and logic that has been burning away since the return to Japan of five kidnap victims from Pyongyang last October. Endless TV coverage and documentaries together with dozens of angry op ed pieces carried in Japanese newspapers, all add up to a media campaign tinged with hysteria.

The hysteria has spooked the population. In a poll conducted by the Cabinet Office in January, nearly 80 percent of respondents said they believe Japan might go to war, most likely in North Korea.

Not good for a peaceful resolution to the problems between the two countries perhaps, but a gift for hawks who have argued for years that Tokyo should take a tougher line against North Korea.

But is the right using the pain of the five kidnap victims and their families to advance its cause?

Take one of the two major organizations campaigning on the issue, The National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN).

The chairman of NARKN is Katsumi Sato, a nationalist who says the only “real politicians” in Japan are Shintaro Ishihara and Shingo Nishimura. Newly re-elected Tokyo Gov. Ishihara famously believes Japan should “go to war” with Pyongyang (see accompanying interview), while Nishimura achieved overnight fame in 1997 when he planted the Japanese flag on a rocky, windswept island — known as Senkaku in Japan — in the East China Sea, signaling what he said was “the revival of a proud Japan.”

In 1999, he was forced to resign from his post as vice minister of the Defense Agency after suggesting in a Playboy interview that Japan should think about acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

Sato is listed as an “academic supporter” of the Restoration Party — New Wind (Ishin Seito — Shinpu), a group that advocates the “overthrow of the postwar system and the return to the true form of our national character.”

Links to this party, to Shingo Nishimura’s Web site and various other hard-right causes can be found on local chapters of the NARKN Web site. Needless to say, there is no acknowledgment of past atrocities by Japanese forces on the Korean Peninsula. “The comfort women were paid prostitutes,” says Sato.

Does Sato deny using the plight of the kidnap victims for political ends?

“Of course we use the kidnap issue,” he says. “We’ve tried for years to get people to understand what Pyongyang was doing, but people only woke up last October. If we don’t use it we’ll never solve the North Korean issue.”

The key to solving the issue for Sato, Ishihara, Nishimura and their ilk is strikingly similar — sanctions against North Korea backed by an aggressive foreign policy and the threat of military action.

It is a position that, according to Choe Kwan Ik., editor of the People’s Korea in Japan, is a recipe for disaster. “The media and the right in Japan, under Washington’s influence, are trying to frame North Korea, with the ultimate aim of forcing a regime change. It means that no progress is possible between the two countries.”

The hardline agenda also sits uneasily with at least some members of the families they are supposed to be representing, including the most famous face of the campaign, Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter Megumi is alleged to have committed suicide in Pyongyang.

“We know Sato is a rightwinger but we need all the help we can get from whoever we get it from,” he said on the telephone. “But we don’t agree with economic sanctions or anything like that. We just want the country to help us get our loved ones back.”

Yokota heads a second organization, set up by the families themselves. While lacking the rightwing links of the NARKN, its politicization has been quite sharp since last year. Much of its real leadership is provided by Toru Hasuike, who is a brother of one of the kidnap victims, Kaoru.

With Hasuike as general secretary, the families have found themselves supporting some very hardline causes. Last December, for instance, they were guests at a forum organized by Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform, which wants to include the North Korean kidnappings in its high school textbooks in place of references to alleged Japanese war crimes.

The figure who has benefited most politically, however, from the fallout of the abductee issue is LDP lawmaker Shinzo Abe, once a “nonentity,” in the words of one Tokyo magazine, who has become one of the most famous faces in Japan since last October by standing shoulder to shoulder with the families and their allies and pulling the rug out from the more conciliatory approach of other LDP politicians.

Another supporter of educational “revisions” and regular visits to Yasukuni Shrine, his home page includes a link to The Modern Korea Institute, NARKN’s sister organization.

Whatever the truth of rightwing exploitation of the abduction issue, since last October the Pyongyang regime has been increasingly demonized and a consensus formed that only threats, not negotiations, from a militarily stronger Japan can break the deadlock.

The alternative view — that the Pyongyang admission to the kidnappings was another sign that the reclusive state was coming in from the cold gets less and less of a hearing.

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