KOBE — Seven months ago, on the eve of the House of Representatives election, North Korea’s abductions of Japanese was one of the main campaign topics.
But as the House of Councilors election approaches, most candidates are paying little attention to the issue and instead focusing their speeches on issues of more immediate concern to voters, including pension reform.
Before the November election, with the offspring of the five Japanese abductees who were repatriated in 2002 still in Pyongyang and the fate of 10 other missing Japanese, including those the North claimed are dead, still unconfirmed, relatives of the missing and their supporters were very frustrated and worked to make the abduction issue a major part of the Lower House campaign.
To draw public attention, the supporters conducted a nationwide survey of Lower House candidates, asking for their views. Both the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party of Japan made resolving the abduction issue a key part of their platforms.
In Kobe, the parents of Keiko Arimoto, one of eight Japanese whom North Korea claimed had died, appeared at rallies for Shigeo Omae, a rightwing Hyogo Prefectural Assembly member who had long worked to resolve the abduction issue. Omae was challenging one of Japan’s most well-known politicians, Takako Doi of the Social Democratic Party, in the Hyogo No. 7 district centering around the city of Ashiya.
Omae beat Doi, who only managed to return to the Diet on her party’s proportional representation roster. Doi admitted that Omae’s criticism of her soft stance on the abduction issue had been a reason for her loss.
But now, after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s historic second visit to North Korea in May, when he managed to bring to Japan the offspring of four of the five freed abductees, relatives of those still missing are lamenting the apparent lack of interest on the part of Upper House candidates.
“The reality is that there is no one in the Upper House race I want to support. I doubt if the candidates are thinking seriously about the abduction issue,” said Kayoko Arimoto, Keiko’s mother.
Shigeru Yokota, head of an association of relatives of the abductees whose kidnapped daughter, Megumi, was also declared dead by Pyongyang, expressed further concern: “Most candidates are keeping quiet about the issue. It’s a very different situation from the Lower House election last fall.”
In addition to polls that show voters have other concerns, including pension reform, the relatives and their supporters offer a variety of reasons for the relative silence. Yokota and Arimoto are disappointed that many Japanese, both the general public and candidates, feel satisfied that the offspring of four of the five abductees were able to come to Japan.
Ryutaro Hirata of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) said that unlike the Lower House election, this poll finds candidates feel less of a need to bang the drum about the issue.
“It’s not that the candidates are less interested in the issue. Interest is high, but there is a feeling among politicians that things have moved along,” Hirata said.
Much has been accomplished since the Lower House election, including the passage of bills that pave the way for Japan to level economic sanctions against North Korea and Koizumi’s second visit to Pyongyang last May, he said.
Then there was the public backlash against relatives of the missing Japanese following Koizumi’s May visit.
Despite the generally favorable public reaction to his trip, which came after his first trip in 2002, when he managed to secure the release of abductees, Yokota called the prime minister’s visit the worst possible result and charged that he had not pressed Pyongyang leader Kim Jong Il for answers as to the fate of the 10 missing or declared dead by the North.
Yokota and other relatives were branded as selfish and their association was flooded with angry phone calls and e-mails from those who felt Koizumi had done all he could.
“Koizumi’s second visit to North Korea and the generally positive public reaction has created a split among many politicians. Many are now wary about publicly supporting the abduction issue because of the backlash against the families,” veteran political analyst Minoru Morita said.
Once the election is over, though, supporters say they will keep up their pressure on the victorious candidates to take a firm line in dealing with North Korea.
“Regardless of the election outcome, we will continue to put pressure on the Diet to place economic sanctions on North Korea,” NARKN’s Hirata said. “Kim Jong Il has promised to reopen the investigation into the 10 who disappeared, but it is difficult to trust North Korea. We can’t just wait for North Korea to decide what to do.”
Meanwhile, the parents of the missing continue to wait.
“We’re getting older and still we have no answers. How much longer are we going to have to wait, especially if, as it appears, interest in the fate of our loved-ones is starting to wane?” Arimoto asked.