As more and more relatives of the Japanese abducted by North Korean agents more than four decades ago get older, the little progress made in resolving the issue has come into sharp focus. The clock is ticking for the families, and the Japanese government is struggling to find a way forward.
“I don’t know what to say when I think of the families who continue to wait. I feel the urgency, that there is no time to lose,” Katsunobu Kato, minister in charge of the abduction issue, said in an address at a symposium in Tokyo on Saturday.
Recent deaths have been a reminder of how much time has passed since five Japanese abductees were repatriated in 2002. Former U.S. soldier Charles Jenkins, who deserted to North Korea and there married Hitomi Soga, one of the five who returned, died last week at 77, and the mother of another abductee, Rumiko Masumoto, died at 90.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said he wants to resolve the issue while in office. But with tensions rising over the North’s missile and nuclear programs and no prospects for resolution in sight, Abe administration officials are becoming worried that criticism will mount if he does not follow through.
Fifteen years have passed since the landmark summit between late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi resulted in Kim admitting his country’s involvement in the abductions.
The government officially lists 17 citizens as having been abducted by North Korean agents and suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in other disappearances. Pyongyang claims eight of the abductees have died and that four others never entered the country.
But a government source said it is “becoming harder everyday” to pressure North Korea on the issue.
Despite Pyongyang’s 2014 agreement with Tokyo to reinvestigate the abductions, there has been no progress so far.
With prospects bleak, the government is trying to gather bits and pieces of information about the abductees through diplomatic channels. The defection of a senior North Korean diplomat based in London to South Korea last year opened a window of opportunity. Japan immediately asked South Korea to question the defector — Thae Yong Ho, who had served as North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the U.K. — about the whereabouts of Megumi Yokota.
Yokota was abducted by North Korea in 1977 at age 13 and has become a symbol of the abductees’ plight. Her parents remain key figures among family members working for the abductees’ return.
According to a source, Thae, when asked by a South Korean official whether Yokota is alive, said he heard that she had died of illness and that the Japanese government is also aware of this. The government also found, through other sources, information related to her daughter, Kim Eun Gyong, now 30. The father of Kim’s husband was a Korean who lived in Japan and went to North Korea as part of a postwar repatriation program.
A government official acknowledged the difficulty of finding solid leads to pursue, saying highly credible information about the abductees’ survival is “limited.” But it is still important to try to piece together every single piece of information at hand and hope that it eventually will lead to progress, the official said.
For now, the government aims to lean on the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which is pushing a hard-line stance against Pyongyang, until North Korean leader Kim Jong Un caves in, a source close to Japan-U.S. ties said.
With the risk of a military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula in mind, Japanese government ministries and agencies are also continuing to secretly consider how to evacuate the abductees, including details like routes and the use of shortwave broadcasts. In this situation, a large number of refugees could flow from North Korea to Japan.
During Trump’s visit to Japan last month, Abe sought U.S. help in protecting the abductees in the event hostilities break out. Trump responded that the U.S. military will do all it can to rescue the abductees.
But whether this is actually feasible — or whether the idea has been shared within the U.S. government — remains unclear. The diplomatic source said for the U.S. military to rescue the abductees, ground troops would have to be dispatched, a scenario that would surely prove difficult to carry out.