The governments involved in the six-party negotiations with North Korea have one chief aim: to get the hermit state to abandon its nuclear weapons program. In recent months, those nations including the U.S., Russia, China and South Korea have made some significant strides, including agreements from Pyongyang to shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and to disclose its nuclear activities. But for Japan, the sixth party to the talks, these diplomatic successes are threatening another of its most tenaciously held foreign policy goals: discovering the fate of 17 Japanese civilians abducted by the North between 1977 and 1983.
In 2002, five Japanese citizens were returned to the country after being kidnapped and forced to instruct North Korean agents on Japanese culture and society; Pyongyang at the time said the rest were dead a claim the victims' families dispute. Since then, the remaining abductees' fate has become a hot-button issue in Japan. "It's a heart-rendering story, and involves issues of sovereignty and human rights," notes Robert Dujarric, director of Temple University's Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies. "The issue has taken on a life of its own." The government has called the kidnappings "acts of terrorism"; former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set up a special task force on the issue last year. Families of the victims have become national celebrities, and make regular media appearances not only to campaign for their cause but also to speak out on politics and nuclear disarmament. Hatsuhisa Takashima, special assistant to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, says a recent poll shows that "88% of Japanese are interested in the abduction issue and want it resolved."
Last week, at an international symposium titled "North Korean Human Rights Abuses Awareness Week," cohosted by the cabinet secretariat and the Foreign Affairs and Justice Ministries, specialists from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. met to confer on the abductee issue in the context of broader human rights violations in North Korea. Their view was clear: "We will not have satisfaction on denuclearization, human rights or the abductees until the [North Korean] regime is gone," says panelist Michael Green, senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington, D.C.
Regime change, however, is looking unlikely. Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have thawed since Washington agreed to unfreeze some $25 million in North Korean funds after Pyongyang agreed to dismantle the Yongbyon reactor; the U.S. is also considering removing the North from its blacklist of state sponsors of terror, an offer that previous Japanese leaders have insisted should be left off the table until the abductees issue is resolved.
Japan is getting little help from its neighbors. While Lee Myung Bak, the conservative-leaning Seoul mayor widely tipped to win South Korea's Presidential elections on Dec. 19, is expected to take a harder line with the North generally, Japan's single-minded focus on the abductions makes South Korean observers squirm. Kim Hyun Ho, director of the Chosun Ilbo Research Institute for Korea, notes that while Seoul claims more than 480 abducted citizens of its own, it worries that such a "very political" issue could cloud ongoing nuclear negotiations. "South Korea doesn't want this to be an obstacle in the six-party talks," says Kim, "but it could become one." China, meanwhile, was supportive of Japan's position until relations between the two nations cooled drastically over former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead (including several class-A war criminals) are memorialized.
All this has many Japanese afraid that resolving the fate of their abductees will ultimately fall by the wayside in the face of larger rapprochement with the North. Dujarric says there is little that Japan can do at the moment as the "U.S. has caved in to North Korea" and argues that the six-party talks have become two-party talks between Washington and Pyongyang. An opportunity could arise, however, if North Korea demands more aid as a condition for continuing with the negotiations. "For Japan to pay, something has to be paid [to them] for the abductees," he notes, "even if it is just a fig leaf." Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda broached the abductions issue with U.S. President George W. Bush during his visit in November, but Bush has made no promises regarding negotiations with the North. In the meantime, the general public continues to rally behind the abductees' families, who insist that Japan continue to hold the line. "I want to know why this happened, where she is and how I can help to bring her home," says Masaru Honma, whose younger sister, Megumi Yokota, was kidnapped in 1977 at age 13. "The fact that they sent us a stamped death certificate is proof to me that she is still alive."