Japan’s powerful rightwing seems determined to use the abduction and other problems with North Korea to wreck Tokyo’s stunning breakthrough in relations with that once-secretive nation. Even moderates here have let themselves get involved in the attempted demolition.

For weeks on end now we have had endless spectacles of abductee relatives sobbing into TV cameras and demanding no further breakthrough unless their loved ones are fully accounted for. Someone is funding that effort, and it is not hard to guess who.

True, the past sins of the North Korean regime are undeniable. Its military/intelligence machine has not only felt free to abduct Japanese citizens at will; it has apparently blithely killed those who seemed inconvenient. It has bombed passenger planes, counterfeited foreign currencies, smuggled drugs, and generally behaved in every obnoxious way possible. North Korea’s embassies abroad once functioned more like crime centers sheltering behind diplomatic immunity.

At home the regime’s behavior was even worse, with tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of dissenters put into slave camps or executed amid a personality cult of numbing proportions.

But other nations have also passed through periods of hysteria and excess. Usually there is a reason — a regime trying to consolidate its position after a bitter civil war, a perceived need to mobilize against external enemies, and so on. Japan’s not-so-distant bout of national hysteria and brutality had much less excuse than North Korea’s.

Which is why the current rightwing campaign here to force Tokyo to get North Korea to account for every detail of the abductions is so perverse. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, has not only admitted to and apologized for the abductions; amazingly, he has also been willing to finger his military hardliners as guilty. Pushing Kim further to the wall could well put a freeze on the relationship breakthrough, and an end to any chance of sorting out the abduction issue.

Maybe that, precisely, is the rightwing objective — to keep North Korea on the hate list now that Moscow and Beijing are no longer credible enemies.

Kim deserves all the support he can get. Anyone who has worked in government knows how hard it is to confront a powerful military/intelligence machine. Kim is denounced by the rightwing here as two-faced for sending spy ships into Japanese waters on the eve of his breakthrough talks with the Japanese prime minister. Yet it is far more likely that the ships were yet another last-ditch effort by the hardliners to frustrate Kim’s efforts to open up to the outside world, just as the CIA seems deliberately to have crashed a U2 spy plane onto Soviet territory during crucial detente talks between U.S. and Soviet leaders in 1960.

The talks were aborted as a result. Then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower knew nothing in advance about the spy plane caper. The Cold War had to drag on another 30 years.

In many ways, North Korea’s leftwing hardliners mirror the mentality and methods of Western and Japanese rightwing hardliners. Their hawks feed our hawks, and vice versa.

In his efforts to open up to the outside world, Kim does seem to have been able to keep the hardliners under control. His carefully timed hot and cold policies seem to be part of that effort. But the sight of a Japan, which makes little apology for its own, far worse pre-1945 abductions of Koreans, Chinese and others, demanding even fuller back-downs over the abduction issue, could well tip the balance toward Pyongyang’s hardliners.

With the Korean abductees, Tokyo’s lame excuse is that we cannot talk of abduction since Korea was Japan’s colony. But what are we to say about Japan in China, where it was common practice to raid peaceful villages and make off with any strong males at hand? Less than half survived the rigors of being shipped to Japan like cattle and being made to work there like slaves.

Postwar Japan tried to destroy all incriminating records of this disgusting act, and only came to admit it after Taiwan released an official record it had found by accident. Tokyo’s refusal to admit germ-warfare attacks on Chinese villages, and the activities of its dreadful germ-warfare experiments on live Chinese citizens by Unit 731, goes well beyond anything North Korea can be accused of.

The rightwing here demands that North Korea’s abduction organizers be punished. Yet many of the Unit 731 and other wartime atrocity organizers were not only unpunished; many went on to have respected positions in Japan’s postwar society. None of this gets mentioned in the current media hubbub over abductions.

This strange ability of the Japanese media to compartmentalize — to focus entirely on one issue and ignore other highly relevant issues — carries through to the so-called security issue. The rightwing here demand even firmer assurances from Pyongyang that it will not develop threatening rocket and nuclear capabilities.

No one seems to notice that North Korea is under far greater rocket and nuclear threat from the United States, and that U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea are an integral part of that threat. Worse, the U.S. has twice been on the point of bombing North Korea, in 1994 and 1998, to force wanted back-downs. Yet Kim’s suggestion that Japan should do something to reduce its own threat to North Korea was dismissed as impertinent.

This emotionalism and lack of logic destroys any chance of intelligent Japanese foreign policies. Even moderate commentators here are dragging out that favorite term of outrage — “kizen-taru,” stern and uncompromising — to describe the attitude Japan should take toward North Korea. They have long been using it against Moscow over the equally contrived Northern Territories dispute. It went into overdrive during the phony dispute with Beijing over North Korean refugees trying to break in to Japan’s consulate premises in Shenyang, northern China, earlier this year.

With Moscow the only result has been to delay territory settlement for more than half a century. Over Shenyang, Beijing said: “Cool it.” Over the abduction issue, Pyongyang says: “Stop making such a fuss.” Japan should take that advice.

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