National interest is in the eye of the beholder. For example, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Ethiopia and Ghana last week to offer aid, but also to reinvigorate the African Union’s support for reform of the U.N. Security Council, of which Japan still hopes to become a permanent member. Since Security Council membership is an old, maybe dead story, the press was more interested in the possibility that Japan is being diplomatically “outmaneuvered” in Africa by China.
In any case, neither item offered a fraction of the drama and news appeal of Sakie Yokota’s trip to Washington, where she lobbied American politicians for sanctions against North Korea. By providing blanket, in-depth coverage of Yokota’s Congressional testimony and her meeting with U.S. President George Bush, the media seemed to imply that here was an issue that is very much in Japan’s national interest.
And it is in the sense that the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean spies, beyond being a serious international crime, remains an obstacle to peaceful coexistence among the countries of northeast Asia. But the press is more interested in melodrama than policy and, at any rate, the amount of coverage Yokota’s trip received was disproportionate to its likely effects.
The whole point of the trip was to ask the U.S. to pressure North Korea into coming clean on the fate of those abductees who have not been clearly accounted for. Yokota’s daughter Megumi was kidnapped in 1977 at the age of 13 and has come to symbolize the abductee issue. North Korea says she is dead, but they haven’t provided credible evidence and so her parents maintain that she is still alive and still a prisoner.
Sakie Yokota’s tearful testimony in front of the House of Representatives International Relations Committee on April 27 was shown repeatedly on network news shows in Japan, as was her subsequent meeting with Bush in the Oval Office. These reports emphasized the reactions of the congressmen and the president, all of whom were moved by Yokota’s story and pledged solid support for the return of all abductees still in North Korea. Yokota was greatly impressed by the response.
The outpouring of sympathy is to be expected given the nature of the story, and the Americans who pledged support know that in the press nothing will suffice except a full-scale commitment to “enhance our efforts” and “try to do more” for the abductees, as Congressman James Leach told reporters. But trying isn’t necessarily succeeding, and while politicians can be expected to avoid the unbearable truth, the press is supposed to balance official optimism with a realistic assessment of the issue at hand.
The closest thing heard to a realistic assessment was a TV Asahi correspondent who said that the only American media that covered the congressional testimony were the wire services. And, in fact, a Web search reveals that none of the major dailies or networks ran stories specifically about Yokota’s appearance. Even the Oval Office meeting received scant mention in the U.S., and certainly not as much as the president’s horsing around with that impersonator at the White House Correspondents Dinner the next night.
Even in the wire service articles, Yokota’s testimony and her conversation with Bush were covered within the larger context of human rights. She was one member of an entourage that also included North Korean defectors.
So while the visit was a success in and of itself, it had little real impact. Yokota’s son, Takuya, who accompanied his mother to Washington, told Japanese reporters that he was impressed with the Americans’ sincerity in tackling the abduction issue but admitted the visit didn’t get much coverage in the American media. And it’s difficult to understand why it should. U.S. concerns about North Korea are still centered on the latter’s nuclear weapons program, and while Washington is willing to threaten Iran, a country that has yet to develop an atomic bomb, it mostly tolerates North Korea, which boasts of its weapons of mass destruction. Against such a background, it hardly seems plausible that the U.S. will suddenly get tough over abductees. America’s priority is to persuade North Korea to return to the six-nation talks, and any mention of abductees will simply anger Pyongyang.
U.S. cooperation on the abduction issue is certainly helpful, but the Japanese government would do better to cultivate the cooperation of China and South Korea, who have a larger and more direct stake in the issue. As it stands, the diplomatic aspects are mired in politics.
Shinzo Abe has positioned himself as the Liberal Democratic Party’s most prominent supporter of the Yokotas, but he’s also one of the party’s most vocal critics of China and South Korea. His well-publicized meeting with Sakie Yokota upon her return from Washington was seen as an opportunity to shore up his standing against possible rivals for the job of prime minister when Koizumi steps down in September, in particular Yasuo Fukuda, who was chief cabinet secretary before Abe and has suddenly emerged as a contender for the party leadership.
But Abe is probably no more cynical than the Americans. When Sakie Yokota arrived in Washington, she was officially welcomed by Under Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless. A TV Asahi commentator wondered out loud why someone from the Defense Department was sent to meet her. Lawless, of course, was the man who informed Congress several weeks ago that Japan would shoulder the bulk of the economic burden of U.S. forces realignment in the Pacific. Greeting Yokota may have been his way of saying thanks.