The death last week of Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was kidnapped by North Korea in 1977 at the age of 13, has returned the spotlight to the issue of Japanese people believed to have been abducted by Pyongyang in the 1960s through the 1980s.

While Megumi’s plight would gain worldwide recognition, the Japanese government officially claims 17 Japanese nationals were abducted, but adds that there could be more than 800 others.

The issue has a complicated history and looks no closer to being solved today.

In October 2002, five abductees were returned. What were some of the events that led up to that?

From at least the 1960s, there had been rumors in towns along the Sea of Japan that residents who suddenly disappeared had been kidnapped by North Korea.

These stories were fed by the odd report of sightings of unidentified men on the beach, of bodies with Korean language documents washing up on the shore or of unidentifiable fishing boats discovered to have run aground.

A key turning point came on Jan. 7, 1980, when the Sankei Shimbun newspaper ran a front-page story on three young couples who had disappeared in 1978 from the beaches of Fukui, Niigata and Kagoshima prefectures. The story contained an account of a separate, failed kidnapping in Toyama Prefecture that police suspected was the work of foreign agents from an unnamed country. Two of the couples in the article would later return to Japan. However, at the time, the story received little attention.

Then, in 1985, a Korean agent carrying a passport in the name of Tadaaki Hara was arrested. The real Hara had disappeared in June 1980 from Miyazaki Prefecture. Two years later, a female North Korean agent named Kim Hyon Hee was arrested for her role in blowing up a Korean Airlines jet in 1987. She claimed to have been taught Japanese in North Korea by a woman who sounded like Yaeko Taguchi (Kim knew her as Lee Un Hae), who had disappeared in 1978.

These developments forced the Japanese government to look into the matter. On March 26, 1988, Seiroku Kajiyama, a Liberal Democratic Party heavyweight who was then the home affairs minister, told the Diet following an investigation there was now sufficient reason to believe the couples mentioned in the 1980 Sankei article may have been kidnapped by North Korea.

More abduction claims would follow. Keiko Arimoto, then 23, disappeared in Europe around July 1983. The ex-wife of a Japanese Red Army Faction member who hijacked a plane to North Korea and remained there would later admit that she helped abduct Arimoto in cooperation with North Korean authorities.

Still, the government did little, saying it had no way to confirm the cases, but also not wanting to antagonize North Korea. It was also true that senior LDP politicians and Foreign Ministry bureaucrats had long relied on the Japan Socialist Party, which had deep connections with Koreans in Japan loyal to North Korea, to help maintain an unofficial diplomatic back channel to North Korea.

Another reason for the lack of action was the death of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994, about a year after North Korea fired its first medium-range missile, the Nodong I. With talk of war with North Korea growing in 1994, the families and their supporters were told now was not the time to discuss the abduction issue.

It would not be until the late 1990s, when the Megumi Yokota kidnapping case came to light, galvanizing a movement among abductees’ families and their supporters, that Tokyo would finally engage with the issue in earnest and lead to North Korea to admit it had kidnapped Japanese people in order to have them teach Japanese language and culture to North Korean agents who would then pose as Japanese citizens.

What happened with Megumi Yokota?

On Nov. 15, 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota, who was living in Niigata, disappeared while on her way home from school.

Nothing was heard for nearly two decades until an October 1996 article was published in a Japanese magazine called Modern Korea. An ex-North Korean spy who had defected to South Korea claimed to have seen a Japanese woman in 1988 and was told she had been kidnapped by North Korea as a teenager. By early 1997, the Japanese media were reporting that Megumi had somehow been kidnapped and taken to North Korea.

Her photo would become the most recognizable symbol of the abductees and help galvanize a domestic, and then international, movement to find out what happened to others now believed to have been abducted. North Korea told the Japanese government in September 2002 that Megumi had died in 1994. At first, she was said to have been cremated. After Japan pressed the issue, remains Pyongyang claimed to be Megumi’s were handed over, but the Japanese government said DNA testing showed they were not those of Megumi.

It would be learned that Megumi had a daughter, Kim Eun Gyong. In 2014, Shigeru Yokota and his wife Sakie were able to meet her in Mongolia, briefly, along with Kim’s baby daughter. The Yokota family continues to believe that North Korea is lying and that Megumi is alive.

How was it that five abductees were able to return in 2002?

By early 2002, the families, and a nationwide network of supporters, as well as influential politicians within the LDP were convinced North Korea had abducted Japanese nationals, and there was a groundswell of public sympathy for the victims and anger toward North Korea.

At the same time, North Korea had experienced severe famine in the late 1990s, with estimates by outside observers that up to 3.5 million people had died. As of 2002, North Korea was still saying that a minimum of 235,000 died. Pyongyang wanted better relations with Tokyo in the hope of getting more food aid.

In 2002, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (left) met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang to attempt to resolve the abduction issue. | KYODO
In 2002, then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (left) met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang to attempt to resolve the abduction issue. | KYODO

After months of negotiations, and some misgivings by the United States, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to Pyongyang in September 2002, for the first-ever visit by a sitting Japanese prime minister. The following month, he went back and returned with Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto, who had been abducted from Fukui Prefecture in 1978, and Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo, who had been abducted from Niigata that same year. Both couples were now married.

In addition, Hitomi Soga, who had been abducted from Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, in 1978, returned. It was learned her mother Miyoshi had also been abducted, but North Korea claimed she had never entered the country.

Soga was married to an American, Charles Jenkins, who had deserted the U.S. Army in South Korea in January 1965, crossing into North Korea. Jenkins and their two daughters would arrive in Japan in July 2004.

How did the revelation that North Korea did, in fact, kidnap Japanese citizens affect Japan’s domestic politics?

Key supporters of the abductees’ families included many conservative or right-wing politicians who were hawkish toward North Korea.

Until the Cold War in Europe ended in the early 1990s, senior LDP heavyweights and kingmakers such as Shin Kanemaru, who was deputy prime minister at one point, or Hiromu Nonaka, a chief Cabinet secretary, had taken a more conciliatory approach toward North Korea.

Both men, as well as their like-minded party allies, worked with the opposition Socialists in the 1970s through the 1990s to maintain something of a back-door channel to North Korea, via the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, which enjoyed good contacts with the Socialists. Kanemaru and LDP and Socialist party members made a visit to Pyongyang in September 1990, in an attempt to forge a new relationship, and were received by North Korean leader Kim Il Sung.

But, by 2002, a new generation of politicians was coming of age and the North Korean abduction issue, which they felt had been downplayed or ignored by the older LDP members, became a political touchstone for a broader conservative agenda. A key LDP supporter was Lower House member Katsuei Hirasawa as well as a younger LDP member whom Hirasawa had once tutored: Shinzo Abe. The Socialist Party apologized for its past defense of North Korea, but the realization that North Korea had lied to Japan damaged its credibility to a point from which it has yet to recover.

Abe, who was then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, would travel to Pyongyang in September 2002 with Koizumi and would make resolving the abduction issue a key policy goal. Other politicians at the time, including Yuriko Koike, now Tokyo governor, made calls for sanctions against North Korea and Koreans in Japan loyal to Pyongyang. Officially, however, Japan’s diplomatic strategy in the following years would become a combination of dialogue and pressure, via economic sanctions.

What’s the situation with the government’s current effort to seek the return of the remaining abductees?

In 2013, the Japanese government established a headquarters to deal with the abduction issue, led by the prime minister and a state minister in charge of the issue.

Japan continues to bring up the issue in multilateral forums such as Group of Seven and Group of 20 meetings, as well as the United Nations. Abductees’ family members and supporters often travel abroad, especially to Washington, to meet with U.S. officials and press their case.

Abe continues to seek a summit with North Korea current leader, Kim Jong Un, to try and resolve the fate of the abductees. Japan has said that it cannot normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea until the abduction issue is resolved, even though it is not quite clear what actions and results would meet that definition. North Korea, on the other hand, has shown no sign of interest in a summit with Abe anytime soon.

But with the death of Shigeru Yokota, and the death in February of Kayoko Arimoto, the mother of abductee Keiko Arimoto (whom North Korea claims died in 1988), the movement to press the abduction issue has lost two influential members. Many other families, who have been waiting decades for answers, are also getting older. Decades after the kidnappings, and 18 years after Koizumi went to Pyongyang for the first time, a resolution to the abduction issue remains as elusive as ever.

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