With abduction issue unresolved, Japan at odds over allowing North Koreans to attend Tokyo Games


The government is unsure whether to allow North Korea’s delegation to attend the Olympics in 2020, given the lack of clear prospects for resolving the decades-old abduction issue.

Some want a political decision to permit the delegation’s entry for the sake of holding a successful Olympics and maintaining the mood of reconciliation in East Asia, but a lack of progress in efforts to bring the abductees home may touch off a public backlash. The victims were whisked away by North Korean agents decades ago.

With uncertainties over the how the future of Japanese-North Korean relations will play out over the next two years, the government faces a tough call.

During talks with visiting International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach in Pyongyang in March, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country will certainly participate in the Tokyo Olympics.

Bach has since expressed eagerness for the Tokyo Games to be a celebration of reconciliation and proposed that the North and South Korean delegations march into the stadium together.

As part of its sanctions program against North Korea, Japan has refused entry to all people with North Korean nationality since October 2006, in principle.

In past sporting events in Japan, the question of whether to offer exceptional treatment to North Korean athletes has often been a source of contention.

When Japan hosted the women’s East Asian Football Championship in Tokyo in February 2010, ministers under then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s administration were divided over whether to let the North Korean soccer team in.

The government ended up granting an exception to the entry ban, but relatives of the abductees criticized the decision, saying Japan should maintain a resolute attitude.

Japan has since admitted entry by North Korean sporting delegations, stressing that politics and sports should be in different spheres. Such events included the soccer World Cup qualifiers in 2011, the 2014 World Team Table Tennis Championships, the 2016 Olympic women’s soccer qualifying tournament and the 2017 Asian Winter Games.

But the Olympic Games are in a class of their own, and Japan’s decision might be a focus of global attention.

Toshiaki Endo, former minister for the Olympics, said refusing entry is inconceivable from the standpoint of the Olympic Charter, which rules out any discrimination on the grounds of national origin. His view was shared by some within the government and ruling bloc.

But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has taken a tough stance on the abduction issue, asked Bach over the phone in April to pay heed to public sentiment in Japan.

A senior government official said it would be unacceptable for Japan to welcome the arrival of North Korean athletes without the abduction issue being resolved.

Abe has expressed eagerness for settling the abduction issue quickly, not only due to the aging of their waiting relatives, but also because he hopes to prevent the issue of whether North Korean athletes should be allowed in from being rekindled, a government source said.

The prime minister appears likely to face an uphill task, with North Korea indicating no clear readiness to discuss a solution to the abduction issue despite the historic meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.