Japan Puts Human Rights at the Top of the Agenda with North Korea
John de Boer (University of Tokyo & GLOCOM Platform)
We have been witnessing a revolutionary change in Japan's foreign policy ever since the abduction issue took center stage in its negotiations with North Korea towards normalization. This is likely the first time that Japan has placed human rights at the top of the agenda in negotiations of this nature. European based human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have long been pushing all governments to give human rights top priority and now, as the abduction issue claims center stage, the Japanese government and its people are putting this principle into practice.
On 30 October, London based Amnesty International issued a press release insisting that human rights should remain on the "top of the agenda" and called upon North Korea to "make public all information surrounding the forced abductions and to disclose vital details surrounding the death of eight others who were forcibly taken to North Korea in the 1970's and 1980's" (Press Release). Considering the high level of public attention towards this issue in Japan, chances are that human rights will remain a priority in all continuing negotiations.
However, as the European Union has been stressing ever since 2000, Japan's insistence on human rights should not stop once the abduction case has been resolved. Rather, in order to prevent such things from happening ever again, Japan must gain a firm commitment from the North that it will comply to its obligations as a signatory to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Japan should also insist that North Korea become signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a convention from which it unilaterally withdrew after the first UN resolution on the human rights situation in its country (1997).
As we in Japan have all witnessed, the issue of abductions not only involves Japanese. There are said to be approximately 400 South Korean abductees, one known Lebanese and potentially more from other countries. In addition to this, European Union reports indicate widespread human rights violations in North Korea. There is no freedom of choice, there is a basic lack of individual rights, there are an unknown number of political prisoners, public executions, disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture. Conditions in prisons are also said to be extremely harsh.
By insisting upon human rights with North Korean officials, Japan is doing the whole world a favor. European public opinion seems to encourage Japan's prioritization of human rights, however, more formal support needs to come from human rights NGO's and governments around the world to encourage the Japanese government's tough stance on human rights with the North. We need to create a coordinated posture between government, business and civil society and develop mechanisms that will make the North Korean government comply to its commitments. Japan's refusal to grant economic aid until the abduction issue has been resolved completely is an important source of leverage and is one that should be maintained even after all becomes clear regarding the circumstances and the fate of the kidnapped. As was said at the beginning of this article, we are witnesses to an important development where all sectors of society in Japan are recognizing the importance of human rights in international relations. An open, free and accountable North Korea will not only prevent horrendous abductions from happening ever again but will increase peace and security in the region and the world as a whole.
- Amnesty International Press Release, "Japan/North Korea: five Japanese abductees must be allowed freedom of choice", 30 October 2002
- Council of European Union, "European Union Annual Report on Human Rights", 2001, p. 25.