Recently, Japan and North Korea began talks aimed at removing the major impediment to a normalization of relations between these two countries. This issue is the abductee problem and both governments have taken the first steps toward the resolution of the problem. Pyongyang has promised to re-investigate the issue, and this is symbolically important.
This declaration signals a change in North Korea’s official position. Until 2002, the North Korean government did not admit that the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea had taken place and described all such talks of abductions as hostile and malicious propaganda. In 1992, the Japanese side raised the issue in official negotiations with their North Korean counterparts, whereupon the latter stormed out and stopped the talks while accusing the Japanese of spreading malicious gossip.
In 2002, in a landmark declaration, Kim Jong Il finally admitted that it was North Korea that had lied about the abductee issue. He confirmed that in the late 1970s, North Korean agents had abducted 13 young Japanese people. Most of these people were men and women from the street — nurses, carpenters and high school teachers. Kim Jong Il admitted that the North Korean government had lied for twenty years about these abductions while also insisting that only 13 people were victims of North Korean kidnappings. Of this number, five were allowed to return to Japan, while it was alleged that the other eight had died.
When the North Korean government made this admission, it was obviously assumed that this would help improve relations with Japan. The assumption was that this would lead Tokyo to provide aid. However, this did not prove to be the case. When the Japanese public learned that the allegations of kidnappings were true, they were outraged. Many questioned the reliability of North Korea’s assertion that only 13 had been abducted and that eight had died (in spite of their young ages).
Clearly, North Korea learned from this unexpected outrage. North Korean strategists hoped that their sincere admission of past wrongdoings would give them sympathy and support but what they got was outrage and ever escalating demands. From then, Pyongyang gave up any hope of improving relations with Japan. It was the Japanese public’s (understandable) overreaction that was the prime cause of this.
I do not know how many Japanese people were abducted, nor how many of them are still alive — but it is quite plausible to assume that some of them are still alive in North Korea. There are good reasons why the North Korean government does not want to send them back.
It is not entirely clear why the North Korean government kidnapped these people. However, it seems that at least some of them were employed as trainers and educators for North Korean spies who were to be dispatched to Japan. Obviously, their task was to make North Korean operatives as Japanese-looking as possible. We know for sure that of the eight people who had been claimed dead, at least two participated in such activities.
From the North Korean point of view, sending these people back would be dangerous. It would almost certainly compromise some North Korean spies currently in Japan — since these people know way too much about the North Korean spies. Such considerations, as well as skepticism about the Japanese as diplomatic partners, have prevented any movement on this issue in recent years.
However, in the last year or so, the North Korean government had improving relations with Japan a priority — largely because it sees Japanese aid and cooperation as a means by which to hedge against China (whose excessive influence North Korean leaders resent). Incidentally, such motivations are also behind North Korea’s recent attempts to improve relations with Russia. Under such circumstances, the North Koreans have promised to reinvestigate the issue – thus hinting that some concessions may be possible.
It is too early to tell what will happen, but signs are positive at present.
Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.