That old saying about democracies being their own worst enemies is getting a good workout in Japan’s abductee dispute with North Korea. By any standards, North Korea’s willingness to release five Japanese abducted in the 1970s following Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s Sept. 17 breakthrough visit to Pyongyang was remarkable.

But the wave of emotional, anti-Pyongyang fever sweeping Japan’s media following the return of the abductees has pushed the relationship right back to where it started, or worse. The initial wave of enthusiasm for the prime minister’s initiative has quickly soured.

True, Japanese public opinion has had every right to be upset by the record of past North Korean abductions. Demands that the children of abductees also come to Japan are also understandable. But how can this be done if Tokyo breaks its Sept. 17 promise to allow the abductees or their relatives go to North Korea to talk with the children?

Pyongyang has no objection to the children going to Japan. But they are North Korean citizens, born and raised in North Korea and now finishing up their education or finding jobs in North Korea. Persuading them to go and live in a foreign nation they distrust and whose language they do not understand was never going to be easy. The temporary return of their parents would be crucial to this persuasion. It would also be humanitarian: Parents usually do not like to be separated from their children.

Now all this is refused, thanks mainly to relentless media efforts to paint Pyongyang as the worst kind of evil empire. We have the absurd situation where any Japanese journalist can go to Pyongyang to talk to the children, but the parents cannot. The abductees have been counter-abducted by Tokyo, and no one says boo.

True, having the parents return to North Korea within the 10 days originally promised was never realistic; a return after a month or so would have been better. The former abductees needed more time to adjust to Japan. Indeed, watching the gradual softening of their once-tense expressions as they meet old friends and visit old places is one of the few delights in this otherwise miserable story.

For miserable it is. Thanks to the media fuss, hardline elements in the administration — Deputy Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe especially — have been able to move in and take control of policy toward North Korea. They now demand the immediate “return” of all the abductees’ children to Japan and detailed information on the fate of other abductees as a condition for thawing relations with Pyongyang (how children who have never been to Japan are supposed to “return” there is never explained).

By some extraordinary sleight of hand, blame for the sad fact that the parents cannot get to see their children is turned round 180 degrees and placed squarely on Pyongyang, rather than Tokyo.

Meanwhile, the media, including even the progressive media, happily go along with this nonsense, and have even taken the lead in identifying other possible abductees and other North Korean atrocities to back up the hardliners’ positions. The fact that more information on other abductees would be much easier to gain if contacts with Pyongyang were unfrozen is overlooked. The fact that Pyongyang’s gulag-style atrocities are much more likely to end if relations with the outside world are improved rather than worsened is ignored.

Equally ignored is the record of Japan’s past atrocities toward Koreans. For at precisely the moment when the headlines were screaming foul over Pyongyang’s failure to identify correctly a graveyard bone of an allegedly deceased abductee, yet another cache of bones from Koreans or Chinese brutally abducted to Japan in the war years was uncovered here. That news was buried deep in the back pages. The idea that Japan might have an obligation to try to identify those bones and inform relatives never entered the fevered brains of Japan’s media.

Meanwhile the Foreign Ministry and other moderates who helped create the Sept. 17 breakthrough are being thoroughly discredited. Presumably the same thing is happening in Pyongyang. It could be decades before any new initiatives get under way. If all this was part of some crude plot to demonize North Korea and so justify a future U.S. attack, it would make a kind of sense. But with the media at least, the emotion is too raw and strident to be feigned.

There is an eerie similarity in all this to the way Japan’s lightheaded media have managed consistently over the years to help Tokyo’s policy hardliners stall relations with Moscow. Whenever moderates or realists have tried to promote the obvious Two Island solution to Japan’s festering territorial dispute with Moscow — that Japan should accept the two island groups of the Habomais and Shikotan to which it has a strong historical claim, and negotiate separately the much more complex issues of Etorufu and Kunashiri later — the media go into orbit. Not even the slightest weakening of Japan’s claim to its traditional territory can be allowed, they warn.

The hardliners then move in to insist that return of all four territories together is the pre-condition for any improvement in relations. The resulting deadlock has already lasted half a century, and could well last another half century.

As with the North Korean abductee issue, emotive language abounds. The government is told to negotiate with persistence — “nebarizuyoi.” A “kizen-taru” — stern and uncompromising — attitude is demanded. Meetings and signature campaigns are held nationwide, as if these proofs of popular indignation will somehow melt the enemy’s cold heart.

The idea that the Japanese position might be flawed, or contradict international agreements and promises, never intrudes on the emotionalistic fervor. True, some media commentators do realize the illogicality of Japan’s current abductee policy. But as one of them put it to me recently, it is now impossible to say anything that contradicts the current mood. Even the prime minister has been forced to go along with it and renege on the promises he made only months earlier.

The similarities with the media hysteria and devious rightwing maneuvering that led Japan into militaristic disaster more than half a century ago are frightening.

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