International Papers

Snatch and Gab

The Japanese prime minister’s visit to Pyongyang earlier this week achieved several concrete steps toward improving security in Northeast Asia, but North Korea’s promises to extend its moratorium on missile testing and Japan’s promise to provide billions of dollars of aid once relations are normalized were overshadowed by North Korea’s admission that its agents kidnapped at least 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and ‘80s, and that eight of them are now dead. Most of the abductees were in their early 20s when they were snatched, allegedly to tutor North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs, though one was just 13—a strange choice for a language teacher. Several were nabbed while studying in Europe, and six of the eight who perished did so within a decade of their abduction.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s shocking disclosure, which came after years of denials, outraged the Japanese press. An op-ed in Sankei Shimbun said that by copping to the abductions, “North Korea has exposed its own insanity” and Kim has “personally admitted his country is its terrorist state.” (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.) The Daily Yomiuri fretted that Kim’s admission would make the Japanese people even more distrustful of the Pyongyang regime: “Now the public is increasingly skeptical about the need for the government to restart diplomatic normalization talks with a nation that appears to be an outlaw state in their eyes.” Asahi Shimbun declared: “The abduction issue must never be trivialized. At the same time, however, it must not be allowed to be used as a reason for Japan to punish North Korea and put off the normalization process. … As the abduction issue has made abundantly clear, North Korea can even be considered dangerous for Japanese people. No time should be lost in changing the present unstable and untenable relationship.”

The Japan Times reminded readers that during the summit Prime Minister Koizumi had made an apology of his own when he asked forgiveness for Japan’s brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Although it officially refused North Korea’s demand for reparations, Japan agreed to provide billions of dollars of economic assistance “in the form of grants, long-term low-interest loans and humanitarian aid” once diplomatic ties between the two nations are normalized.

A piece from Korea’s Hankyoreh reprinted in the Korea Herald warned the Japanese not to exaggerate the abduction issue: “The basic purpose of the normalization talks is to settle the unfortunate past history and return an abnormal situation to normalcy. For Japan, the establishment of a diplomatic relationship is the final step in rectifying its historical wrongs, which pushed the country on the path of colonial occupation and wars of aggression.” An op-ed in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post agreed, declaring, “It is impossible on moral grounds to uphold the argument that the value of eight Japanese lives, no matter how much abused, outweighs the lives of hundreds of thousands of Koreans who were brutalised and perished during Japanese colonial rule.” This notion was echoed in the Korea Herald, which suggested “the abduction issue might have been no more than a diplomatic ploy by both sides. … [T]he tens of thousands of [Korean] sex slaves, many of whom were dragged to Japanese army brothels during World War II, simply cannot be compared to a few dozen Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents.”