Tokyo forums last week involving Japanese, South Koreans and Thais whose kin were kidnapped by Pyongyang have given the abduction issue greater global import, reckons Kyoko Nakayama, the government’s point woman, who hopes her past efforts as a diplomat to Central Asia to free Japanese hostages can someday help her bring home any compatriots still alive in the North.

As special adviser to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a Pyongyang hardliner bent on resolving the abduction issue, Nakayama believes now is the time to put greater pressure on the North to free any remaining victims, despite the Stalinist state’s claim that no more Japanese abductees remain alive there.

She also adheres to the Tokyo policy line of not normalizing relations until the issue is resolved to Japan’s satisfaction.

“I believe we sent a signal to North Korea that the issue has more global meaning now,” Nakayama, 66, told The Japan Times in a recent interview, referring to last week’s Tokyo forums held to raise awareness of the problem. It is believed citizens from 12 nations, including Japan, were abducted to North Korea, the lion’s share of them from South Korea, where they get little media play.

Tokyo officially lists 17 Japanese as having been spirited away by the North and is demanding that Pyongyang acknowledge this and come clean on their fates. Pyongyang acknowledged abducting 13 and allowed the five it claimed were the only survivors to return to Japan in 2002 after the landmark summit to the North by Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

Tokyo, and the Japanese public, however, suspect scores more were kidnapped.

Nakayama’s passion to help the abductees owes to both her 1999-2002 stint as ambassador to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and as a mother, government officials say.

During her time in Central Asia, she negotiated with armed rebels in Kyrgyzstan who had kidnapped several Japanese engineers, and she got them out safely.

As a mother, Nakayama empathized with those whose loved ones were taken from them.

“When Japan said in the past it could not start normalization talks before solving the abduction issue, many countries did not understand why. I want more people to understand the reality of the issue, which is beyond the imagination of people on the street,” Nakayama said.

“Young people who were living ordinary lives were stuffed into sacks, their hands and feet bound and their mouths gagged. They were then put on boats and taken away.

“I want people in other countries to know about the situation,” she said.

Although the former Finance Ministry bureaucrat admitted the government does not have a specific plan on how to retrieve any remaining abductees, she said, “One thing I can say for sure is that we want to rescue them safely.”

Nakayama said the government will continue to insist that Pyongyang and its enigmatic leader, Kim Jong Il, ensure the safety of any abductees still alive in his country and ultimately let them return home.

Even though Japanese were disappearing under shady circumstances and there was growing suspicion that North Korean agents were involved, Japan took no investigative action over the disappearances for decades, partly, some argue, because there was no blatant smoking gun pointing to Pyongyang.

Although the official abductee list bears only 17 names, nongovernmental organizations believe hundreds may have been kidnapped.

According to one NGO, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, a support organization for the Japanese abductees’ kin, people from at least 11 other countries have been abducted.

The government, hoping to keep the abductee issue in the public mind, passed a law in June designating the week of Dec. 10 as North Korean human rights week.

Tokyo has also vowed not to lift economic sanctions imposed on Pyongyang, following its July ballistic missile tests and October nuclear test, unless the North shows “a sincere attitude” toward resolving the abduction issue.

Critics call this stance on Pyongyang’s human rights abuses hypocritical, however.

Human rights activists say Tokyo cares little about the plight of North Koreans who defected to Japan.

The government only accepts as “defectors” those who were originally brought here as forced laborers during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, were allowed to voluntarily leave for what became North Korea, between 1959 and 1984, and then fled back to Japan.

According to the NGO Mindan Support Center for Refugees from North Korea, Tokyo does not know how many such North Korean defectors are living here. The group estimates there are about 100.

Asked about the government’s stance, Nakayama said she believes Tokyo would accept more such defectors if the public speaks out on the issue.

“If all Japanese people feel (the issue is important), things will go that way naturally,” she said. “I (meanwhile) believe Japan’s stance on the defectors is not passive.”

Nakayama has worked hard to win the trust of relatives of the missing with her firm stance toward the North.

She has spent the last several years working on the issue, serving as a special adviser to Koizumi’s Cabinet in 2002 to 2004.

Her stance is similar to that of Abe, whose tough talk on the North won him public plaudits when he was Koizumi’s chief Cabinet secretary.

But whether she or anyone else succeeds in confirming and bringing home any more living abductees remains to be seen.

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