Abductees Return: Politics versus Human Rights?
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
The European Press, in particular the British, has shown a considerable amount of interest in the return of the five Japanese abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970's and 1980's. Their coverage has reflected the complexity of the matter both from a human and a political perspective. Justin McCurry of The Guardian called it, "the latest episode in a human drama that has gripped Japan" (October 16). David McNeill of The Independent captured the moment the returnees stepped on to the tarmac by stating that, "they looked nervous and shy but, given that they had just arrived from the world's most reclusive state to find themselves the best-known faces in Japan, who can blame them?" (October 16) The BBC stressed the sense of frustration that is beginning to take hold in the Japanese press regarding their inability to "uncover the truth" behind the abductions (October 16). The truth of the matter is that, like the Japanese press, British newspapers don't exactly know what to make of the visit either. However, they are beginning to realize the explosive impact that this issue is having on Japan.
Although the words "human rights" have not been mentioned, these abductions represent a gross violation. Not only were the victims kidnapped, they were forced to work for 24 years, against their will, in connection with operations that were likely directed against Japanese citizens and are until today barred from any freedom of speech or action. They are slaves to the political establishment that stole them and torn between the political circumstances that guide Japan's foreign policy towards North Korea. This is most certainly reflected in their silence as they visit Japan.
The BBC portrayed the returnees as "looking down when they spoke". It captured Teruaki Matsumoto's (whose brother is said to have died in North Korea) sense of frustration by quoting him say, "I thought I was listening to a tape recorder" when he asked about his brother's fate ("Kidnapped Japanese Silent on Abductions", October 16). In a separate article the BBC surveyed the reaction of the Japanese press and stressed the rising level of dissatisfaction towards the Japanese government's ineptness and unwillingness to jeopardize upcoming talks with the North over this issue ("Japan's Press Grapples with Emotive Reunion", October 16).
Justin McCurry and David McNeill both insisted on the "widespread suspicion" that exists here in Japan that North Korea is preventing the abductees from making remarks about the communist country while holding their children ransom. The inability of the returnees to speak their will has given birth to a tremendous amount of frustration not only among the Japanese press but also among the Japanese people. Their inability to get answers to questions such as: what happened to the others, is quickly creating a level of anger which could halt further talks on normalization between Japan and North Korea and potentially send Koizumi's approval ratings tumbling.
What has rarely been reflected in the foreign press is the tremendous political ramifications that this issue is having domestically, here in Japan. The Social Democratic Party may be on the verge of collapse after denying that any abductions took place and having only apologized for this denial several weeks ago. Past governments, both LDP led coalition and the SDPJ government, are under increasing scrutiny for not having pressed the North on the issue. The impotence of the Foreign Ministry and its lack of determination to insist on the resolution of this issue before normalization can proceed is causing a high degree of ire among the Japanese populace. Under question are the priorities of the Japanese government itself. This is where the Japanese government has to insist on its willingness to defend and assure the human rights of its citizens instead of using them as a form of leverage in order to gain security concessions from Pyongyang in future talks. The crucial question that remains unanswered is will the Japanese government continue to bargain with the lives and rights of its citizens?
- Justin McCurry, "North Korea's victims return home after 25 years", The Guardian, 16 October 2002
- David McNeill, "Kidnapped Japanese return after 24 years", The Independent, 16 October 2002
- "Kidnapped Japanese silent on abductions", BBC, 16 October 2002
- "Japan's press grapples with emotive reunion", BBC, 16 October 2002