Rushing through Shinjuku station to catch a late afternoon train, I ended up on the wrong platform. Jumping stupidly onto a local commuter service, I found myself standing directly in front of an elderly, well-dressed gent whose face seemed vaguely familiar. Sitting straight-backed and looking straight ahead was the father of Japan's most famous abductee Megumi Yokota. None of my fellow passengers gave Shigeru Yokota so much as a sideways glance, though some must surely have recognized a man whose dignity and determination are known throughout the nation.
I got off at the next station, resisting the temptation to say something. In the case of Mr and Mrs Yokota, there can be few people in Japan who don't feel enormous sympathy for their plight and the manner in which they have conducted their campaign. The abduction of their then 13-year-old daughter Megumi from Niigata in November 1977 by North Korean agents and their refusal to give up in a gutsy attempt to find out the truth over her fate is widely known. Their belief that Megumi may yet be alive, though emphatically denied by North Korea, and a wish to get to the bottom of this long-drawn out saga keeps the Yokotas in the spotlight.
Yet the question of what has happened to Megumi Yokota and the 16 other Japanese believed by Tokyo to have been abducted has to be placed in a wider context. The public may regard the abductee issue as completely separate from regional issues but, as Gavan McCormack argues cogently in his recent working paper "Japan and North Korea: The Long and Twisted Path towards Normalcy" -- published by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS in Washington DC -- any final establishment of the facts about Megumi Yokota and the other abductees is tied to bigger questions.
As North Korea restarts its old practice of saber-rattling timed, doubtless, to coincide with the inauguration of the Obama administration, the Japanese government will have to decide on its policies regarding the abductees and how best it can work with its partners to prevent further nuclear testing programs by Pyongyang. Concern by outsiders that successive Japanese governments have been obsessed with the abductee issue at the real risk of being left behind as other nations have attempted to reach some approximate accommodation with North Korea over its nuclear testing sites does not appear to be shared by the Japanese state.
Yet there must surely be negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear project. Everyone in northeast Asia -- aside, that is, from those nutters who advocate some form of doomsday scenario or wish that China would simply occupy the place in order to sort it out -- knows this to be the truth. Since regional realities can not be ignored, it has to be underlined that a denuclearization deal, preferably through the six-power talks, simply has to have a far higher priority than that of the fate of the poor abductees.
Japanese politicians, egged on by the media at times and at others eagerly pushing the issue for all it is worth, may not wish to say this in public but there it is. First, establish a general deal with North Korea and then endeavor to normalize Japan-DPRK relations and perhaps get a resolution to what happened to the abductees. By putting things the other way round, Japan is becoming isolated from its allies and can hardly be said to have gained much satisfaction to date over discovering what the truth may be over its abductees.
To win even a modicum of progress, Japan does not have many options. Bilateral negotiations are improbable and even if they do get underway, a harsh line that threatens to restrict aid and humanitarian support to North Korea would surely produce an early impasse. There remains only the prospect of more regional talks under the auspicies of the six-party scheme and later, more restricted, two-way discussions with an agenda that would cover the fate of Japanese nationals abducted as long ago as 1977 and many wider issues too. Yet the fact that Japan is wary of measures taken last autumn by the United States in an effort to encourage North Korea back to the conference table only adds to the conundrum and strengthens the hand of those who advocate a hard-line approach to Kim Yong Il's regime.
To even begin to reach these goals, Japan will eventually have to confront its own misbehavior during its four decades of colonialism on the Korean peninsula and accept that some, probably disguised, form of reparations may well be called for. Normalization of Japan-DPRK relations will require plenty of self-examination by both sides and a dozen uncomfortable admissions en route.
The Japanese public's understandable concern at present over the abductees serves unfortunately only to narrow the chances of any resolution of the Korean problem for years ahead. It would take a brave political leader to work round this hurdle and demonstrate the required maturity to explain to his or her nation how the greater success might be achieved. Any start on all this may well have to wait until after this year's general election and the determination of a new cabinet to take a fresh initiative.© Japan Today