National / Politics

Abductees' families warn official visit to Pyongyang may not yield answers

by Masaaki Kameda and Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writers

Some relatives of abductees said Wednesday they were against the government sending Japanese officials to Pyongyang as the North has requested, because they may return empty-handed.

The government wants North Korea to release a promised initial report into the fate of Japanese nationals kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, but a lobby group representing their families said it’s unlikely a visit to Pyongyang would make the abductees’ return any more likely.

“Most of the families agreed that it would be ineffective for (the officials) to visit North Korea just to meet members of the special investigation committee,” said Shigeo Iizuka, head of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

Iizuka made the comments following a meeting between abductee families and government officials on Wednesday in Tokyo, including Eriko Yamatani, minister in charge of the abduction issue, and Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau.

The trip to Pyongyang was proposed during intergovernmental talks on Monday in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang. Ihara spent 4½ hours across a table from Song Il Ho, North Korea’s envoy for normalizing relations with Japan.

Sakie Yokota, whose 13-year-old daughter Megumi was snatched by North Korean agents in 1977, also attended Wednesday’s meeting in Tokyo and echoed Iizuka’s skepticism.

“I have serious doubts about the government’s stance, as I wonder whether it would be alright (for government officials) to visit North Korea” without any guarantee that they would return with specific information about the abductees’ whereabouts, Yokota said.

But some Korea experts said Pyongyang would be the best place for Japan to hear the North’s progress report, because its officials could try to verify whatever Pyongyang says from inside the country.

“The Japanese side can check and reconfirm the results Pyongyang provides” if a meeting is held in Pyongyang, said Hajime Izumi, a Korea expert and professor at the University of Shizuoka.

A meeting in Pyongyang might also allow Tokyo officials to hear from the inquiry’s most senior officials. If they have any questions, they could ask the superiors directly, Izumi said.

And, he added, Tokyo might even be able to conduct DNA tests or demand more detailed proof of the report’s claims.

But the biggest hurdle for the Japanese government is meeting the mounting of expectations among a public that’s eager to learn once and for all what happened to the 12 individuals officially listed as abductees.

Sending a delegation to Pyongyang may heighten those expectations further, despite the fact that what is being discussed is only a preliminary report from Pyongyang’s investigation.

There is a chance that both the public and the media may deem the outcome underwhelming and the journey to Pyongyang a failure, Izumi said.

“Given the fact that North Korea said the investigation would take about a year to complete, it won’t likely deliver (full findings) until the very last phase of that promised period,” he said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed on Tuesday that North Korea has asked Japanese officials to visit Pyongyang to get a status update on the inquiry. Abe made the announcement after being debriefed on the China meeting by Ihara.

North Korea’s Song “asked director Ihara to come to Pyongyang to meet members of the special investigation committee to get updated on the details of the probe,” Abe told reporters at the prime minister’s office.

The North Korean side told Ihara that Pyongyang is conducting a scientific and objective investigation but is unable to report concrete results at this time because the probe is still in its initial stages, Abe said.

Later on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida expressed disappointment over what he said was an unsatisfactory explanation after nearly three months of supposed research by Pyongyang. Japan had rewarded the North for its promise to conduct the probe by easing some sanctions.

“The Japanese government hopes (North Korea) will conduct a comprehensive and full-scale investigation and report the results of the investigation as soon as possible,” Kishida said.

North Korea had said it would release its first report on the investigation around “late summer or early fall.”

Japan officially recognizes 17 Japanese as being abducted by North Korea. Of them, five returned to Japan in 2002 following Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landmark visit to Pyongyang that year. North Korea said the remaining 12 were either dead or had never entered the country.

The National Police Agency’s latest estimate says that as many as 883 missing Japanese may have been abducted by North Korean agents

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