Why is North Korea offering to investigate the fate of abducted Japanese?

The North has never accounted for all the Japanese citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and '80s to help train spies. It wants Japan to lift sanctions and provide humanitarian aid.

By , Correspondent

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    In this Dec. 19, 2002 file photo in Niigata, Japan, Shinzo Abe (blue suit), now Japan's prime minister but then deputy chief cabinet secretary, talked with recently released Japanese who had been abducted by North Korea. Accounting for all abductees is a top priority in Japan.
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The abduction of more than a dozen Japanese citizens by North Korean spies during the cold war has moved closer to a possible resolution after Pyongyang agreed to reopen its investigation into their fates.

The move, which came after three days of talks in Stockholm, marks a significant easing in tensions between the two countries. In Japan, establishing the whereabouts of citizens snatched in the 1970s and '80s to teach Japan’s language and customs to spies is afforded greater importance than even North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he believed the investigation was the “first step” toward removing what has proved the single biggest obstacle to normalizing diplomatic ties. "[Our] mission will not end until the day the families of the abduction victims can hold their loved ones in their arms," Mr. Abe said.

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The gesture involves far more than a rare display of North Korean goodwill toward a wronged neighbor, however.

“For North Korea, the abductions are not the real issue; it’s about domestic power politics and North Korea’s desire for Japanese economic assistance,” says Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Meiji University in Tokyo.

“By reaching a deal, Kim Jong-un has demonstrated that he is the only person in a position to deal with Japan’s prime minister. At the same time, North Korea is looking to Japan to lift sanctions and resume aid.”

Those sanctions, which Japan said it would lift in return for progress on the abductees, include restrictions on travel and remittances to relatives by ethnic Korean residents of Japan. North Korean vessels are also banned from entering Japanese ports.

Japanese officials were quick to stress that the penalties were separate from those imposed by the United Nations after North Korea’s three nuclear tests. Yoshihide Suga, chief cabinet secretary, denied that Tokyo was out of step with its allies.

South Korea said it understood the abductions’ emotive force, but added that countries in the region should maintain a united front against North Korea as it seeks to develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. The US State Department said it supported Japanese efforts to resolve the issue, though "in a transparent manner."

KCNA, North Korea’s official news agency, confirmed that the regime was seeking a “final settlement” of issues that have blighted relations with Japan, adding that it would return any surviving abductees.

On the same day as Japan moved to lift sanctions, however, US lawmakers approved a bill that would blacklist North Korean officials thought to be involved in human rights abuses and make it riskier for banks from third countries to lend to Pyongyang.

Origins of a decades-old trauma

In Japan, despair over the abductees’ apparently miserable fates gave way to cautious optimism that at least some were still alive.

In 2002, North Korea’s then leader Kim Jong-il admitted that agents had snatched 13 Japanese citizens. That led to the release of five abductees, who were later joined in Japan by their children. But claims that the remaining eight had died were greeted with disbelief. 

The suspicion that the North was still holding several Japanese citizens – perhaps because they knew too much about the isolated regime – grew in 2004 when cremated remains purportedly belonging to one of them, Megumi Yokota, were found to contain the DNA of other people.

Ms. Yokota’s story epitomizes the strength of feeling in Japan over the abduction issue. Just 13 when she was snatched on her way home from school in Niigata city 37 years ago, Yokota was taken across the Sea of Japan to North Korea.

There, she is thought to have married an abducted man from South Korea, with whom she had a daughter. Yokota’s parents have never accepted North Korean claims that their daughter hanged herself in a psychiatric hospital in 1994 while being treated for depression.

“I hope many of the abducted are still in good health,” her mother, Sakie Yokota, said. “I hope we can soon be celebrating their safe return. This time around, North Korea should really come clean and tell us the truth."

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