The government is set to provide financial and other support for Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea and their family members who return to Japan. On Thursday the Lower House unanimously passed a special bill for this purpose, which is due to clear the Upper House next week and take effect Jan. 1, 2003.

For now, the measure will apply to the five abductees who returned home last month, leaving their family members behind in Pyongyang. It is a small step, however, considering the great hardships they have suffered for the past 24 years as well as the anguish of the parents who have continued fruitless searches for their children for as many years.

The new legislation amounts to a tacit admission of neglect on the part of Japanese authorities. The abductions, carried out by North Korean agents in 1978, constitute a serious violation of Japanese sovereignty, yet the problem has yet to be resolved. There are also other abductees whose fate is still unknown. The government must collect more information about them and, if they are confirmed to be alive, do everything it can to secure their return home.

Regrettably, Japan-North Korea talks on normalizing relations are deadlocked because of disagreement over the abduction issue. Prospects for security talks between the two countries also remain grim. However, Japan should negotiate patiently and steadfastly from a position of principle. The returnee-assistance legislation should help strengthen that position.

The forthcoming law is designed to help returnees rebuild their lives on a stable and independent basis. It is also meant to expedite the search for “missing” abductees. Monthly stipends for returnees, if they decide to live here permanently, will be 240,000 yen for a couple and 170,000 yen for a single person. These payments will be made for up to five years. Other forms of assistance, including exemption of public-pension subscriptions, preferential housing accommodation and free vocational training, are also promised.

The model for this is current legislation concerning returnees from China who lost their parents there during World War II. The law is aimed at promoting their return and supporting their life here. It is reported, however, that some returnees are finding it difficult to make a living or are disappointed with their new lives in Japan. This points up the need for the central and local governments to take hands-on follow-up measures through closer cooperation.

The bill’s unanimous passage through the Lower House reflects overwhelming public support for the abductees and their families. However, it does not necessarily mean that the political parties are taking a united front vis-a-vis North Korea. The Social Democratic Party, for example, which has maintained friendly ties with the North Korean Workers Party, has been criticized for being “lenient” in regard to the abduction issue.

What is needed now is policy unity, particularly at a time when the issue appears to be getting more difficult to manage. It is not difficult to pursue a unified policy. Indeed, this is a rare moment in Japanese history, when diplomacy is backed solidly by public opinion. A Kyodo News poll shows 85 percent supporting the government’s policy of demanding the permanent return of the returnees’ family members as well.

North Korea has hardened its attitude, saying Japan has broken its promise to allow the five to go back to Pyongyang after a short stay in Japan. During informal talks held in China earlier this month, a North Korean official is said to have warned that the North would not yield to the “pressure of Japanese public opinion.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to agreement is mutual mistrust. The Japanese believe that North Korea is balking at Japan’s legitimate demand for the return of family members. But the North Koreans, concerned more about Japanese economic aid, seem to think that Japan is making too much of a fuss about the abduction issue.

As things stand, it appears increasingly difficult to reopen talks by the end of the year. It will be sad, indeed, if the returnees have to greet the New Year separately from their children — and, in the case of Mrs. Hitomi Soga, from her American husband as well. Their families here say they will not make easy compromises for the sake of early reunions. They want the government to respect their feelings and to stick to its guns.

The new legislation says in Article 1 that the abductions constitute “unprecedented state-sponsored criminal acts by North Korean authorities.” There is no room for North Korea to refute this fact. Pyongyang must allow the children to reunite with their parents in Japan — with no strings attached.

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.