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Meet Me in Pyongyang

Caroline Kennedy, US Ambassador to Japan, meets with Japanese members of Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea. U.S. Government Work.

One of the many complex repercussions of Japan’s turbulent 1960s, the abduction of Japanese civilians by North Korea, is still a potent emotional issue in domestic Japanese politics. In my previous article, I touched upon the actions of the Japanese Red Army Faction in the Middle East and North Korea. One other such subgroup of the Japanese Red Army, the Yodo-go group, was one of the most well-known terrorist groups remaining based in East Asia. On March 31st, 1970, the Yodo-go group hijacked Japan Airlines Flight 351, which was bound for the city of Fukuoka. After gaining control of the flight, the hijackers released the hostages (including such prominent figures as the future Catholic Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao) in Seoul and Fukuoka and landed in Pyongyang. The hostage takers received a warm welcome and asylum from Kim Il-Sung. The group soon thereafter became an integral partner for North Korea in its campaign of terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s.

After a few years in hiding, they reclaimed the international spotlight by declaring that they were now devout followers of the Kim regime and its Juche philosophy, or the self-reliant, revolutionary ideology of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The group’s members eventually married in North Korea and began to travel the globe, spreading the ideals of the North Korean regime wherever they went, well-dressed and eloquent. What happened on these trips abroad, however, was actually much more sinister.

Throughout their self-imposed exile in the 1970s, the Yodo-go group and their wives began a campaign of kidnapping and money laundering throughout East Asia and Europe in order to fund the DPRK regime and establish political cover. These actions were done at the personal behest of Kim Il-Sung. During their stay in Europe, two Japanese civilians, Toru Ishioka and Kaoru Matsuki, were kidnapped by the wives of two group members. They were then transported overseas to North Korea. The remains of both were supposedly returned to their families in Japan. DNA tests, however, prove that these remains are not those of Ishioka or Matsuki. Keiko Arimoto, a young, Japanese woman, was also kidnapped while staying in Europe. The Japanese government  suspects the former wife of a Yodo-go group member to be her abductor. It has placed all of the kidnappers on international watch lists and has sent repeated requests to the North Korean government for their extradition. In several other cases, abductees may have been coerced into coming to North Korea. The members of the Yodo-go group and their wives are the suspected culprits. At the time of the kidnappings, there was little negative opinion of North Korea in Japan, and, to this day, there remains sympathy for the nation. Nevertheless, there have been little to no reports of any former sympathizers being allowed to leave or move freely.

It is a matter of utmost controversy trying to count exactly how many Japanese civilians were kidnapped and how many survive to this day. The official tally by the Japanese government in its negotiations with North Korea is 17 captive Japanese citizens, while other estimates are as high as 880. Some of the supposed remains of kidnapped Japanese civilians who died in North Korea have not been proven to be such. Forensic issues and controversies abound, especially concerning the remains of Japanese woman Megumi Yokota, one of the most highly publicized victims of abduction. Inconclusive DNA tests have led to a massive public furor over North Korea’s supposed lies about her death and the possibility that she, and other abductees, may still be alive.

These North Korean actions have all led to one question: Why kidnap all of these young Japanese citizens? Some suggest that North Korea hoped to steal their identities in order to destabilize Japan and increase sympathy for the North. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also noted that by continuing to kidnap Japanese civilians, North Korean agents could gain an understanding of the evolving Japanese way of life in order to better infiltrate Japan. Additionally, the Ministry has suggested that the Yodo-go group kidnapped and coerced multiple Japanese civilians in order to grow its own ranks. Such recruitment would have been beneficial to the group’s stated goal of eventual revolution in Japan and around the world, all in the name of Juche. It is not known how many people may have been recruited or killed by the Yodo-go group, but possible underground sleeper cells in Japan and inactive agents in North Korea exist.

After decades of putting escalating pressure on the North Korean government and gaining international support, Japan was able to reach a breakthrough during negotiations with the North in the early 2000s. This was only possible after years of domestic lobbying by the families of the victims led to a surge in political support from the Japanese leadership. In 2002, during a time when Japan aimed to normalize relations with North Korea, the DPRK admitted for the first time that it had, in fact, orchestrated the kidnappings of (only) 13 Japanese civilians. In 2004, further talks focused intensely on resolving the issue of abductees.[1] Faced with severe economic pressure, North Korea allowed for family reunions between the freed abductees and their children born in North Korea. Until quite recently, there has been little word on the rest of the possible abductees. Some may be dead, and others may still live, willingly or unwillingly, in North Korea.

After Kim Jong-Il admitted to the kidnappings, the Japanese public was enraged, and most negotiations stalled as Japan refused to believe most of the abductees were dead. The Japanese Rescue Movement, as the groundswell of support for the abductees has been named, consists of three interconnected advocacy groups and their lobbying organization, Kazokukai.[2] The parliamentary wing of this coalition is the Rachi Giren, a loose caucus of politicians in the Diet who focus on the issue of abductees and relations with North Korea. The issue of the abductees has been institutionalized in Japanese politics, with members of Kazokukai and other advocacy groups frequently speaking to the Diet, many of which are members of Rachi Giren. After the disastrous summit that led to North Korea’s admission about the deaths of abductees, a rising star in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) began to shine.

Always a staunch advocate of Japanese nationalism and highly skeptical of Japan’s attempts to normalize relations with North Korea, a junior LDP lawmaker found his calling when he was chosen to help lead Rachi Giren in the aftermath of the revelations about the abductees. Rising to the position of Cabinet Secretary, this politician would become known as a staunch advocate against the North Korean regime. This man is Shinzo Abe, and he would later overtake the incumbent from within his own party and become Prime Minister in 2005. From that post, he launched a series of retaliatory sanctions for both missile tests and the failed abductee negotiations. Within his own party, there was little disagreement over such hardline nationalist posturing, except from one senior politician, Koichi Kato. He was a well-known advocate for pacifism, even within Abe’s LDP Cabinet. A right-wing official later burned down Kato’s house in retribution for his lack of support.

Due to health reasons and following the suicide of the Minister of Agriculture, Abe was forced to resign from his post in 2007. A series of unstable, bipartisan premierships eventually resulted in Abe’s political comeback in 2012, returning Japan to political normalcy. Since then, he has launched a rapprochement with North Korea designed to bring back more possible abductees and open new investigations. As I have mentioned in a previous article, this may be a method of détente in order to free up Japan’s diplomacy and boost nationalist sentiment. What’s more? Japanese sympathy for North Korea has plummeted due to persistent anger over the abductees, leading to increased discrimination against ethnic Koreans in Japan, as well as economic sanctions with devastating effects on the economy of the DPRK. This conflict continues to define peninsular relations. After years of growing sanctions, the government is not committing to lightening these sanctions (much to the chagrin of US interests) in exchange for the release of the abductees.

Nevertheless, the actions of the Yodo-go group in the 1970s and 1980s continue to carry immense weight in Japanese politics. The possibility of current Yodo-go sleeper cells in Japan notwithstanding, the unprecedented and shocking kidnappings continue to drive nationalist sentiment and have heavily contributed to the rise of nationalists such as Shinzo Abe to power. Such right wing forces have been so essential to the de-pacification of Japan that many of the current conflicts in East Asia can be traced directly back to the reactionary Japanese government of the early 2000s and the actions of the Yodo-go group. Without the Yodo-go group, there may have been no Shinzo Abe.

About the Author

Luke Thomas O'Connell '17 is a Development Studies concentrator with an addiction to foreign languages and knitting.