In Japan, North Korea abductees are national obsession

Like the Vietnam MIA lobby in the US, those Japanese abducted by North Korea in the '70s have become a kind of moral sounding board.

The abduction of at least 13 Japanese – and as many as 35 – by North Korea in the 1970s continues its four-year run as the biggest ongoing story in Japan.

Kim Jong Il confirmed in 2002 that he sent secret agents to kidnap ordinary citizens off the beaches and streets of Japan for use as language teachers in North Korea. Since then, the abductee issue has grown into an ever more powerful, unifying national symbol here.

From January to September this year, for example, NHK, Japan's public broadcasting network, ran some 2,000 stories on North Korea. Of these, at least 700 have been on abductees – an average of almost three stories a day, according to internal NHK records.

The families of the abductees, moreover, have taken on a role in Japan that no single unofficial group has attained: They are a de facto lobby for a rising national mood of dismay and hawkishness in an Asian neighborhood where China is flexing its economic muscle and North Korea is testing nuclear bombs. It is a mood that matches the strong patriotic sentiments of Japan's new prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Like the Vietnam MIA lobby in the US, or the World Trade Center family victims, the abductees have become a kind of moral sounding board. And in Japan, their status has grown to martyrs, survivors, patriots, and celebrities – all rolled into one. Abductees and their families are interviewed on politics, nuclear weapons, Asia, and all manner of issues. In Japan's tightly controlled media, their views are helping to shape public opinion.

Just days after announcing the resumption of six-party talks on North Korea, NHK interviewed the kindly, gray-haired parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted at age 13 in 1977. They spoke of Japan's need to get tougher with North Korea and to open up a new probe into what happened to their daughter.

North Korea says it abducted a total of 13 people from Japan. Five were returned, and eight died in the North, including Ms. Yokota, it says.

On Tuesday, Japan imposed a ban on exporting luxury goods – including cars, wristwatches, liquor, perfume, and caviar – to North Korea in a move experts say could hit the ruling elite. The ban is in line with a United Nations Security Council resolution that blocks trade with the communist nation in luxury goods following Pyongyang's nuclear test on Oct. 9.

"The sanctions may anger North Korea, and that will mean the country closes the door on the abduction issue," said Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter was abducted. "But if the international community succeeds in putting enough pressure on North Korea, we hope it will help our cause in the longer term."

Tokyo said the sanctions would not be lifted until Pyongyang commits to abandoning its nuclear ambitions and provides more information about those abducted.

Yet the abductee juggernaut may have crossed a line with an official endorsement last Friday. The new communications minister, Yoshihide Suga, ordered the government-owned NHK to intensify the news coverage of the abductees and their families, to "be specifically mindful of the issue of the abduction of Japanese nationals."

The order was a break from the usually indirect pressure exerted on NHK and private media in Japan. It is being criticized as undermining freedom of speech and pushing the media to be propagandists.

NHK president Genichi Hashimoto said Friday that the broadcaster would maintain its independence. "We have firmly adhered to the right to edit our programs freely and autonomously up to this point, and we will continue to do so," Mr. Hashimoto told reporters.

Even the Asahi Shimbun and Japan Times newspapers, often stout defenders of government policy, argued that the new media marching order went too far. "We can't support the idea of the government having the power to order NHK to focus on a single issue," intoned Asahi.

In South Korea and China, few officials will disagree over the inexcusability of one nation kidnapping the people of another. Yet even sympathetic moderates in Seoul and Beijing argue that Japan has begun to exhaust the abductee issue. Some intellectuals say that Tokyo is trying to create a victim status for itself, and to deflect a more honest accounting of the wrongs Japan committed in the 20th century.

Still, in Japan, the stories about abductees are likely to continue. On Nov. 10, the Japanese public learned that Kyoko Matsumoto, age 29, disappeared while she was on her way to a knitting class in 1977. Her photo and case have appeared in many stories over the past few days as the official 17th abductee case. A commission is investigating more than 450 reports, and say that of these, about 35 are likely to be cases of abduction.

Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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