WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers and officials joined hands Thursday to prioritize at the Group of Eight summit in July in St. Petersburg, Russia, the abductions by North Korea of Japanese and other foreign nationals and to press for their return.
The commitments came at a U.S. House of Representatives panel hearing where Sakie Yokota, whose daughter, Megumi, was abducted by Pyongyang, testified and called for U.S. help and international economic sanctions against North Korea to force it to return Japanese and other abducted nationals.
In the strongest-ever show of U.S. concern over the issue, President George W. Bush was to meet Yokota other visiting relatives of Japanese abductees Friday morning at the White House, along with North Korean defectors.
Yokota, 70, became the first relative of a Japanese abductee to testify at a congressional hearing. Her daughter was abducted in 1977 at age 13, and the case has become a symbol of the abductee issue in Japan.
“I know that the president’s commitment to this issue is very sincere. I know he cares deeply about the issue of Japanese abductions,” Jay Lefkowitz, U.S special envoy for human rights in North Korea, told the joint Asia-Pacific and human rights subcommittee hearing under the House International Relations Committee.
Lefkowitz agreed with Christopher Smith, chairman of the human rights subcommittee, who urged him to encourage Bush to give priority to the issue at the upcoming G-8 summit of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.S. and Russia.
“Until the North Korean government is accountable honestly for the whereabouts of every one of the abductees, not only from Japan but from several other countries as well, it will not have any international legitimacy,” he said.
Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said he will continue to press the administration by sending a letter to Bush and meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice next week.
Smith said the Japanese and South Koreans are important U.S. allies and that it “seems to me that this is the place where we could very significantly enhance our efforts on their behalf and on behalf of their people who have suffered the plight of abductions, and the G-8 is a golden opportunity for that.”
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, the lawmakers said they were moved by Yokota’s testimony and reaffirmed their commitments.
“I don’t think there is any more moving instance on human relations today than the story of her family,” said James Leach, the Republican chairman of the Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, who visited North Korea last August.
“We will enhance our efforts, we will try to do more, on her specific case, but also on all of these abduction cases,” Smith said.
Both Smith and Leach emphasized the need to “move quickly” to press North Korea to return the abductees.
On the verge of tears, Yokota said: “We as well as the parents of other abductees are running out of time because of our advancing age.
“It saddens me profoundly and I feel so humiliated whenever I think about why we cannot rescue her.”
She said Megumi and the other abductees “must be alive somewhere in North Korea.”
“Members of Congress, members of the administration and people of America, please render us your help,” she said. “I plead for all countries to join us in saying that we will not forgive the abductions, all the victims must be returned immediately or we will initiate economic sanctions.”