Japan is understandably upset over past abductions of its citizens by North Korea. But rightwing pressure has made a solution almost impossible. It is a good example of how emotional nationalism and Tokyo’s manipulations can damage sensible foreign policies.

At first Tokyo seemed to realize North Korea’s difficulties in admitting the abductions. But a 1999 plan to have the abductees emerge in a third country was aborted when details were leaked to the flighty Japanese media. Fortunately, some intense negotiations by intermediaries allowed both sides to save face, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi making his path-building visit to Pyongyang in September 2002 and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, admitting in exchange that there had indeed been abductions — 13 in all. Eight were said to have died, but the five survivors could visit Japan briefly, provided they returned to North Korea and their families afterward.

It was here that things began to go downhill. Hardliners in Japan wanted to know why so many abductees had died. When the five abductees arrived in Japan, Koizumi’s right-leaning party secretary general, Shinzo Abe, immediately began to insist not only that they could not return to North Korea, but also that their non-Japanese speaking families should be sent to Japan.

Pyongyang fumed over the broken promise, and could only be dragged out of its shell by yet another face-saving Koizumi visit to Pyongyang in 2004. Permission was finally given for families also to go to Japan.

But for Tokyo’s hardliners even this was not enough. North Korea had abducted far more than it had admitted to, they said. Some had been obliterated to steal their identities.

And some of those it said had died might still be alive — in particular, Megumi Yokota, abducted in 1977 at age 13 and said to be a teacher in Pyongyang’s spy schools (which would explain why she like some others could not be released, at least not immediately). Even moderates began to note Pyongyang’s ugly human-rights record. Harsh measures to force the rescue of Yokota and other missing abductees were demanded.

Haggling over Yokota’s fate brought things to a head. Pyongyang had provided a cremated bone to prove she had died. Tokyo said DNA testing proved conclusively the bone was not Yokota’s. Pyongyang cried foul, claiming correctly that accurate DNA testing of a burned bone is virtually impossible (Tokyo has since promoted its DNA tester to a job where he can claim to be incommunicado). But the damage was done.

Yokota’s parents, Sakie and Shigeru Yokota, said they now could not be sure whether their daughter was alive or not. An intense and very well-financed rightwing campaign to highlight their distress quickly got under way.

But then came the mystery of Megumi’s daughter, Kim Hye Gyong, who clearly was alive and well in Pyongyang. If deciding Megumi’s fate was so important, common sense would normally say that someone should go to talk to the daughter. But Tokyo prevents that. A Japanese writer who interviewed her mildly on camera was accused of cooperating with the enemy.

Shigeru Yokota was quickly pulled into line when he admitted briefly a desire to meet his granddaughter. Pyongyang’s offer to let the girl travel to Japan to meet her grandparents has been ignored.

The Yokota parents, now firmly in the pocket of their rightwing backers, insist that under no circumstances will they visit Pyongyang, and that everything must be done to force Megumi’s return. Hardly a day passes without their tearful appearance on some TV screen. This in turn has moved the politicians to pass legislation demanding a full settlement of not just the abductee question but also the handing over of the veteran North Korean spies suspected of arranging the abductions, which virtually guarantees there can be no resolution of the question, and no Megumi.

Instead, Tokyo now wants an international campaign to isolate North Korea. The United States has bought eagerly into the dispute, with the American ambassador here visiting the site of Megumi’s abduction and the Yokotas going all the way to the U.S. to meet President George W. Bush.

As if all this was not enough, we now have the bizarre story of a South Korean, Kim Yong Nam, abducted to North Korea in 1978. Tokyo says that DNA testing has proved Kim was the father of Megumi’s daughter and therefore Megumi’s husband. Kim’s grieving mother and elder sister were brought over with great publicity to Japan to highlight even further the Yokota parental distress. Plans for a joint Tokyo-Seoul campaign to confront Pyongyang’s evil seemed well under way.

But now all this has backfired, badly. The Kim kin have joyfully accepted an invitation to go to North Korea to meet Yong Nam and possibly Kim Hye Gyong later this month. Where does this leave the Yokota distress issue? Worse, what happens to Tokyo’s plans for a global anti-Pyongyang campaign?

As the rightwing Yomiuri newspaper has noted ruefully: “Public support for tougher measures to deal with the abduction issue might be undermined.” How sad.

True, such public support does exist; it is overwhelming even. Japanese audiences usually are very tolerant to criticism. But on the abduction issue any hint that Tokyo has botched the issue, or that Japan did far worse to North Korea in the past, meets stony silence. Is it due to an emotional single-mindedness, especially when an issue has a human dimension? Or is it just a gut hatred of North Korea? I am not sure.

Either way, South Korea’s softer line makes much more sense. It has suffered far more North Korean insult than Japan has. But it realizes there are reasons for Pyongyang’s obnoxious behavior. As the South Koreans put it, if you want a man to remove his coat, you do not blow a cold wind. He will only pull the coat tighter. Send a warm wind instead. Tokyo could learn from that, assuming it really does want to solve the abductee issue.

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.