Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s meeting Friday with the families of those abducted by North Korean agents made it unmistakably clear that the understanding and support of those relatives — and of the Japanese public in general — is essential to progress in the normalization talks that are expected to resume between Japan and North Korea late in October. However, the growing complexities of these state-sponsored abductions seem to have opened a Pandora’s box for both countries.

The prime minister briefed the angry families on his Sept. 17 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. Mr. Kim for the first time admitted that the kidnappings took place, but gave only sketchy information about the fate of the abductees. The government is reportedly considering a variety of follow-up measures, including arranging relatives’ visits to North Korea. An official fact-finding mission left for Pyongyang on Friday.

The responsibility for investigating the kidnapping cases rests primarily with North Korea. But the Japanese government, particularly the Foreign Ministry and the police, must also do their utmost to uncover the truth. The abductees’ relatives complain that the government so far has done very little to help them.

Developments since Sept. 17, particularly grim revelations about the deaths of eight abductees, suggest that the normalization negotiations will be painful and difficult. But there are also signs of a breakthrough in the abnormal relations that began with Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. There is indeed a sense, however faint, that a new page is opening in the history of the Korean Peninsula.

Mr. Koizumi’s trip to North Korea received a positive reception from the Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM, held in Copenhagen earlier this week. The joint summit meeting issued a political declaration calling for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Other nations, including the United States, have also expressed broad support for the Koizumi initiative. His Korea diplomacy, it can be said, has the blessing of the international community.

The Koizumi overture seems to be a potential catalyst for a turnaround in the Peninsula situation. In fact, many opinion polls abroad support the Koizumi trip. But it is also true that prospects for progress are clouded by the emerging realities of the kidnappings, which took place in the Cold War years of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, Pyongyang’s blunt death notice on eight abductees has created new strains in the two nations’ relations as they prepare to reopen the dialogue toward normalization.

According to information provided by North Korea, most of the abductees died young, at ages ranging from their 20s to 40s, and not long after they were kidnapped. Strangely, two of them were listed as dead on the same date. All the deaths were attributed to “illnesses, natural disasters and other causes” — hardly reasons that can be taken at face value.

Understandably, some relatives suspect their loved ones might have been killed, while others question the authenticity of the information itself. Unconfirmed reports say there may be many more abductees than the dozen identified by North Korea. Indeed, the kidnapping issue will likely become further complicated as more details are revealed.

Why and how is it that North Korea abducted so many innocent Japanese? Why and how did some of them die, if they actually died? What kind of lives did they lead? Where are the survivors, and how are they doing? These are some of the immediate questions that must be addressed. And those whose safety has been confirmed must be allowed to meet their families or return home as soon as possible.

Mr. Kim’s admission of the kidnappings is welcome, but he still needs to do more, and much more, to account for what he says his agents have done. He has denied his involvement, saying “some special forces agents acted blindly out of patriotism.” That is a tacit admission that North Korea was a “lawless state.” It stands to reason, therefore, that Japan should pursue North Korea’s sovereign responsibility as well as criminal responsibility for those involved, and seek appropriate compensation for the victims.

Mr. Kim’s apology, which was offered at the summit, is also welcome, but he has yet to match his words with deeds. It remains unclear whether North Korea is truly willing to open up. There is also a lot of confidence-building to do in other areas of concern, such as halting spy-ship incursions and missile test-firings for good. Normalization will be impossible until and unless Pyongyang provides credible assurances of its peaceful intentions.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.