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Suspense is growing over whether the first North-South Korea summit will be held in June as scheduled. It has obscured ongoing Japan-North Korea talks on diplomatic normalization. Japanese public attention is focused on the alleged abduction of a dozen Japanese by North Korean agents. It is anybody’s guess how the question will be settled.

There are three conceivable ways to solve the problem.

First, North Korea could admit its involvement in the disappearance of the Japanese and take proper action. However, this is highly unlikely, even if the allegations are true.

The case reminds me of the mysterious disappearance of a number of Japanese who were visiting the Soviet Union before the perestroika reforms were launched. Their whereabouts were disclosed only after the Soviet Union collapsed and all the information that had been kept secret was released. The new Russian government blamed its Soviet predecessors for all past problems and refused to take responsibility for them.

A similar development could occur on the alleged abduction of the Japanese, if a democratic government were to take over in North Korea. However, experts agree that the Pyongyang regime is stable, and many countries hope for a continuation of the status quo, instead of drastic change that could cause confusion. This explains why Italy and Australia have established diplomatic relations with the current Pyongyang regime.

Second, Japan and North Korea could reach an ambiguous political settlement. A case that merits attention in this connection is the disappearance of then South Korean opposition leader Kim Dae Jung, who now is president of that country, from a Tokyo hotel in August 1973. He appeared in Seoul five days later.

Japanese authorities, suspecting that the politician was kidnapped by South Korean government agents to Seoul, asked South Korea to clarify what happened. The alleged kidnapping, even though the victim was not a Japanese, violated Japan’s national sovereignty. Settlement of the case was considered extremely difficult. Three months after the kidnapping, Tokyo and Seoul reached a political settlement on the issue. Although the case remained shrouded in mystery, they agreed not to pursue it.

This type of ambiguous settlement is reached when prolonged trouble could hurt the interests of both nations, and is not unusual in diplomatic negotiations. Kim was kidnapped eight years after Japan and South Korea had established diplomatic relations. Both nations agreed that the case should not be allowed to damage their fragile bilateral relationship, especially the anticommunist alliance they had formed during the Cold War.

Two years ago, the South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo published what it said was a secret Korean Central Intelligence Agency document confirming that KCIA agents kidnapped Kim. The 1973 political settlement, however, could not be nullified. Both Japan and South Korea apparently know — but pretend not to know — what happened.

It is too early to speculate on what kind of settlement will be possible in the alleged abduction of the Japanese, but the Kim case shows settlement could be reached without clarifying lingering questions. Some Japanese government officials attach more importance to a safe return of the missing than to clarification of doubts.

Third, Tokyo and Pyongyang could make a deal over the fate of missing persons in both countries. A joint statement issued on the Japan-North Korea Red Cross talks held March 13 in Beijing said North Korea had resumed investigations into the whereabouts of missing Japanese. The statement also said that North Korea had asked Japan to investigate the fate of “Korean victims” who were reported missing in Japan before World War II ended and that Japan had promised to conduct a serious investigation.

The meaning of the phrase “Korean victims” is unclear. However, it is public knowledge that an undetermined number of Koreans worked in Japan during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, especially during the war. They were kidnapped by Japanese government agents and brought to Japan, some North and South Koreans claim. The claims have stirred controversy in Japan.

Rhe Japanese media have failed to report in detail on the North Korean request for information on the missing Koreans. This is not fair. It seems to me that if we do not settle the wartime problems, it will be difficult for Japan and North Korea to reach a settlement on the alleged abductions of Japanese. This raises the possibility of a deal with North Korea, according to some experts.

Japanese officials working on North Korean affairs, who should be aware of the significance of the North’s request, are reluctant to discuss the issue. They probably think that open discussion of the problem would affect bilateral negotiations. Perhaps the present political situation may not allow a deal with North Korea.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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