As North Korea’s threatening bluster continues to make international headlines, it seems almost bizarre that Japan, which would be in direct physical peril if a conflict erupted on the Korean Peninsula, has its mind on something else, namely Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents. Though important, the abduction issue is nevertheless old news.

There’s almost no sense of danger at large in Japan with regard to its communist neighbor, owing mainly to the fact that the Japanese media portrays North Korea as simply a basket case. The nation is rarely presented as a palpable threat, despite the fact that Kim Jong Il once test-fired missiles over Japan.

The huge media turnout last Monday for a news conference to promote the new James Bond movie, in which North Korea is the bad guy, suggests that the film may prove to have a stronger grip on the nation’s imagination when it’s released here in March than the current standoff between Washington and Pyongyang does.

Relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, on the other hand, continue to be stymied by the abduction issue, which won’t be resolved anytime soon. The main reason is that no one is budging, not even the press, which might be expected to at least bring up the possibility of incorporating the abduction problem into the long-stalled normalization talks rather than making its solution a precondition for restarting them.

Only the Asahi Shimbun has raised this possibility, though in a guarded, circumspect way. In its New Year’s Day issue, the newspaper ran an editorial that has drawn a huge amount of criticism.

The editorial lists the crises that threaten the world at the moment, and compares the U.S. reaction to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the Japanese reaction to North Korea’s admission on Sept. 17 that it had carried out a program of abductions of Japanese civilians in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Since then, the editorial goes on, Japan has been gripped by a “frenzy” of enmity that threatens to revive “an unhealthy nationalism.” The editors call for a more “flexible” attitude toward North Korea and other world problems.

Just as conservative pundits in the United States have accused their more centrist colleagues of appeasing Saddam Hussein when they question the need to attack Iraq, the rest of the Japanese media has dismissed the Asahi editorial as nothing more than a wishy-washy reiteration of the newspaper’s staid liberal ideals. Shukan Shincho ran an article about how the editorial enraged the families of the abductees, who have controlled the media discussion of North Korea since October.

In the strongest attack, Terumasa Nakanishi, a professor at Kyoto University writing in Shukan Bunshun, said that as he read the editorial his initial “anger turned to pity” toward the newspaper, which he said was desperate to “put a new face on its old principles.” Latching on to the “unhealthy nationalism” quote, Nakanishi said that the newspaper should “accept the passion of the people,” who have gained “a new consciousness” through the abduction issue after “wandering aimlessly” through the postwar years. He also points out that Asahi’s suggestion that people understand the roots of the abduction issue (i.e., Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula) is “dangerous.” Power is the only way to solve problems in today’s world, he says.

The acid quality of the backlash seems to have more to do with the media’s competitive attitude toward Asahi than it does with the piece itself, which is rather mild. The paper has been singled out for ignoring the abduction issue in the past because of its left-leaning agenda, which has included tolerance toward North Korea. Actually, everyone ignored the issue (except the families involved), but Asahi has been defensive about it.

In late December, the paper ran a spread outlining its own history of reporting on North Korea during the past four decades.

And just as a predator can smell fear in its prey, the media read desperation when Asahi used the hit animated movie “Spirited Away” in the editorial as a metaphor. Mentioning that movie’s presentation of “many gods” who are gruesome and “cause trouble to other people,” the editorial went on to admire the young heroine for “drawing out the [monsters’] weakness and loneliness.”

The editors obviously thought the metaphor would appeal to average readers, but what it mostly did was invite derision. “Is Asahi Shimbun serious?” asked Nakanishi, and imagined that the paper’s “excellent reporters” were humiliated by the analogy.

In late January, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe got on the bandwagon and said the editorial might prove an “obstacle” to negotiations over the abductions, since the “rhetorical tone” implies that the government should “forget about the eight abductees” who supposedly died in North Korea. The paper flatly denied it was implying such a thing.

The Asahi Shimbun is a powerful institution and other news organizations see the abduction issue as its Achilles’ heel. No media group dares offend the abductees’ families, since it is the families who are the key to the human interest element of the North Korean problem.

The media has gotten more mileage out of the tragic story of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl than they ever imagined — and far more than they would from worst-case scenarios involving rogue nations. Those, they’re happy to leave to James Bond.