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When mourning makes straight talk taboo


The shock that accompanied the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, quickly turned into a mood of national mourning that continues to hang over the United States a year later. As a form of social behavior, mourning comes with its own protocol, and in this particular case attempts to place the attacks in a relevant historical context were met with anger and resentment, since they were automatically considered disrespectful of the victims.

Something similar accompanied the news that emerged on Sept. 17, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that members of his intelligence forces had kidnapped, over the past 25 years or so, at least a dozen Japanese, of whom eight had died. Though for years the Japanese media has circulated reports that these missing persons were, in fact, abducted by North Korean agents, the admission caused shock and anger among the general population. The media has since fed this anger with extensive coverage of the families of the abducted Japanese, allowing them to vent their rage and frustration in print and on TV at both North Korea and the Japanese government.

So far, the historical context of the abductions has been presented as something that only has relevance in connection to the abductions themselves, rather than to Japan-Korea relations in general. The magazine Sunday Mainichi reported that, in the ’60s, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had wanted to invade South Korea in order to unify the peninsula under communism. Kim didn’t think it was possible without the help of China, which at the time was bickering with the Soviet Union.

Kim changed his war plans into a strategy of infiltration. Agents would pass over into South Korea and change the government from within through sabotage and other means. But since it was very difficult to move between the two Koreas, they would have to go through Japan. The kidnappings were part of this strategy.

This explanation, however, raises more questions about Korea-Japan relations than it answers about the reasons behind the abductions. It is assumed that North Korea needed Japanese to teach their agents Japanese language and customs so that the agents could pass as Japanese citizens. But there were many Korean-Japanese who emigrated to North Korea in the decades after the war. Why go through all the trouble of kidnapping people who aren’t going to be disposed to helping you when there are people with almost the same knowledge who presumably are disposed to helping you?

The psychological relationship between Japan and both Koreas is very complex, and one can’t ignore the acknowledged popular opinion among Koreans that Japan, because it annexed the peninsula and controlled it for 40 years, is responsible for the fact that it’s now divided.

It is this idea that is being shunted aside in the media coverage of the abductions, because reporting it may offend those Japanese who find it disrespectful of the feelings of the abductees’ families.

Kim and his subordinates are being painted in the same colors with which the American media paints Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network. “They do what they do because they are evil” is an explanation that satisfies the immediate feelings of rage and helplessness, but in the long run it does not satisfy anyone’s desire to understand the meaning of these crimes.

Americans, for example, have derided the French movie, “11.09.01,” an omnibus of 11 short films by world-renowned directors on the theme of Sept. 11, because they see it as anti-American. (“Chickens coming home to roost” is how one critic negatively characterized its theme.) Several of the films try to place the terrorist attacks in a global context, none more pointedly than Ken Loach’s piece about the U.S.-sponsored coup that removed the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, and which, coincidentally, took place on Sept. 11, 1973. Intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag are still branded as traitors for trying to talk about the historical context of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In almost the same vein, it is nearly impossible to mention right now that Japanese authorities routinely kidnapped Korean and Chinese civilians before and during World War II, usually for use as slave labor. When Japan normalized relations with South Korea more than 30 years ago, many Korean families demanded to know what had happened to loved ones who disappeared under the colonial regime.

Normalization and the compensation that accompanied it meant that Japan was relieved of the responsibility to explain those disappearances, which is why Japanese courts continue to deny former slave laborers individual compensation today. The families of the abducted Japanese, instinctively understanding how these things work, are demanding that ties with North Korea not be normalized until Kim comes clean on the kidnappings.

Of course, the Sept. 11 attacks and the North Korean abductions are so vastly different in scale that they cannot be compared: Except for Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, no one has suggested that Japan go to war with North Korea. But just as the terrorist attacks have afforded a real opportunity for Americans to re-evaluate their role as the world’s sole superpower, the kidnappings offer the Japanese a chance to look honestly at their historical position in eastern Asia. In its own way, it will be disrespectful toward abductees if the Japanese don’t take this opportunity.