For Japan, Abductions Cloud the Issue

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As a wary Japan prepares to re-enter the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program, two of the most important voices in the national debate belong not to politicians or diplomats, but to a 73-year-old retired salaryman and his wife. Shigeru and Sakie Yokota's only daughter, Megumi, was abducted on her way home from school by a North Korean agent in 1977, one of many Japanese citizens believed to have been kidnapped by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s. The Yokotas have become the face of an influential lobby of abductee families, whose insistence that Tokyo make no compromises with Pyongyang is one of the reasons why Japan will maintain a hard line at the talks — and therefore find its role in the negotiations increasingly irrelevant.

The Six-Party Meetings: Analysis and Issues

•Washington: Limited Patience

•North Korea: What Pyongyang Wants

•China: Feeling the Heat

•South Korea: Use Carrots, Not Sticks

•Japan: Abductions Cloud the Issue

•Russia: Trying to Look Relevant

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Japan feels uniquely endangered by a nuclear-armed North Korea. While some of that fear has to do with Pyongyang's habit of testing missiles near Japan, or threatening to turn its former colonial occupier into a "nuclear sea of fire," the decisive change came in September 2002, when Kim Jong-il admitted to visiting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that Pyongyang had indeed been guilty of abducting Japanese citizens. Kim paid a heavy price for his uncharacteristic outburst of honesty.

Koizumi had come to Pyongyang against Washington's wishes, hoping to finally establish formal relations between the two countries, which could have potentially earned the regime billions in Japanese aid and World War II reparations — and given Japan significant leverage over North Korea. Instead, shocked by the abductions, Japanese public opinion turned overwhelmingly against North Korea, and any possibility of a deal was dashed. Koizumi has since been succeeded by Shinzo Abe, a conservative who won the top job on the back of his public support for the abductees and their families. Abe won't compromise on North Korea — and even if he wanted to, the public wouldn't let him, or any Japanese politician.

"Japan is willing to take an even harder line than the U.S.," says Malcolm Cook, director of the Asia and Pacific program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. "They'll be bad cop-bad cop."

Today, North Korea and Japan have perhaps the most antagonistic relationship in the six-party forum. After Pyongyang's nuclear test in October, Tokyo slapped every sanction it could on the country, down to banning the trade in used bicycles. North Korea continually calls for Japan's exclusion from the talks, claiming that Tokyo is "wasting time by bringing to the table irrelevant issues" — a reference to the abductions, which Tokyo considers unsettled. Tokyo says there may still be kidnapping victims living in North Korea, while Pyongyang insists all the surviving abductees have been returned. Tokyo will try to push the issue at the talks, but though they have Washington's support, the fate of kidnapped Japanese isn't exactly a priority in Beijing, Moscow or Seoul, all of which want to focus the talks on denuclearization.

Analysts outside Japan warn that Tokyo's inflexibility on the abduction issue is robbing it of any influence over the negotiation process. "Japan has lost the leverage of being able to dangle a $10 billion reparations carrot in front of North Korea," says Peter Beck, the Seoul-based North East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group. "The Japanese delegation has been reduced to being spectators at the nuclear talks." For Tokyo, which thought it was finally getting in the game after decades on the diplomatic sidelines, that feeling will be frustratingly familiar.