From Number One Shimbun - Journal of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, January 2017 issue

Pretexts over North Korea
By Gregory Clark

How Prime Minister Abe manipulated the Abductee Problem to demonise North Korea and create Deadlock

Begins: Pretexts come in shapes and sizes.

The 1961 U.S. Operation Mongoose involved faked and real terrorist activities that could be blamed on Castro and used as an excuse for invasion of Cuba. The domino theory was used as a pretext to get allies involved in the Vietnamese civil war. The faked 1964 Tonkin Gulf affair was used as an excuse to bomb North Vietnam for ten years. Non-existent WMD were used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And so on.
Japan has also had one or two pretexts up its sleeve, beginning with the staged 1931 Mukden Incident used as the excuse to occupy Manchuria, and the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge and Shanghai incidents, used as justification to invade all China.

Postwar Japan has claimed to be better behaved But when we hear Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, who cut his teeth in Manchuria – telling us that Japan has to rearm to cope with an alleged North Korean nuclear threat, and that alleged abductees justify blocking the talks that would remove that threat, one begins to wonder.

We can begin with the alleged nuclear threat. In its 1950-53 war with South Korea, the United States and other allies, North Korea suffered three years of pulverizing bombardment. As one of the Australian pilots involved put it to me, “After we bombed all the villages we began to bomb the cows. And when we ran out of cows we bombed the haystacks.”

That war ended with only a ceasefire – neither a peace treaty nor any form of diplomatic recognition. Lacking normalized relations with its hostile antagonists, Pyongyang seems to have reached the same conclusion as a number of other nations in the same situation: Go nuclear. But unlike, for example, Israel, whose nuclear development was allowed to go ahead in 1964, North Korea in 1994 faced the threat of more U.S. bombing if it proceeded – a threat staved off at the last moment with a promise to cease further nuclear development in exchange for the promise of normalized relations with the U.S., the 1994 Agreed Framework.

But the normalization never happened. And so North Korea continued its nuclear development. Would North Korea have stopped if the U.S. had stuck to its 1994 promises? Maybe, if it could have trusted the U.S. But as Pyongyang will tell anyone who listens, the examples of Iraq and Libya prove that anyone who gives up nuclear development in exchange for non-attack promises from Western powers is very foolish.

Meanwhile the U.S. claims that North Korea is developing weapons of mass destruction that threaten the U.S., even though the idea that little North Korea would want to launch a surprise nuclear rocket attack against the U.S. and be obliterated in retaliation seems strange.

The Tokyo government’s urgent calls for public caution and preparation against the alleged danger of North Korean attack reach the same levels of incredibility. But a gullible public goes along with it all, which adds to support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. In Japanese it is called match pump. With the match you light a fire. Then with your pump you claim the right to put out the fire that you yourself created.

True, Tokyo’s hostility to North Korea was also based on reports that North Korea had been holding people it had abducted from Japan back in the 1970s and ‘80s. And for a long time both Pyongyang and leftwing elements in Japan had stridently denied those reports. But in secret negotiations with senior Japanese diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka, beginning in 2000, Pyongyang was persuaded to admit it had abducted 13 people, of whom, it claimed, only five survived.

This was followed by a 2002 visit to Pyongyang by then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, and an extraordinary public apology for the abductions by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who blamed them on rogue elements that would be punished. The five surviving abductees could visit Japan, provided they could return afterward to their families in North Korea.

In exchange Koizumi offered an apology for past Japanese colonization abuses against Korea and a range of generous economic aid. That, combined with the promise to consult on East Asian policies and to put a moratorium on rocket testing, all wrapped up in a document called the Pyongyang Declaration, marked a remarkable breakthrough in relations. Overnight, Japan seemed to go from hostility toward its communist neighbor to a warm embrace.

But the bonhomie did not last long. The five abductees arrived in Japan as promised, but they were not allowed return to North Korea. From being abducted by North Korea, they were “abducted” by Japan. Tokyo demanded that the relatives also come to Japan, even if that meant some must interrupt their education in North Korea.

Once again Pyongyang backed down and in 2004 Koizumi revisited Pyongyang to collect relatives and to reconfirm the 2002 Pyongyang Declaration with its promises of economic aid and normalized relations. But this time he was accompanied by Abe, then deputy cabinet secretary, who was determined to block those promises. Back in Japan Abe began to insist he had evidence North Korea was secretly holding more abductees, many more even, including one named Megumi Yokota, abducted at age 13.

Koizumi said nothing to refute the Abe claims. Rightists threatened to firebomb Tanaka’s house. And so the promise of normalized relations was allowed to disappear into a miasma of hatred of and contempt for North Korea.

It seems obvious that if Abe really was worried about rescuing Japanese languishing in a North Korean hell, then the first thing he should have done was encourage some form of Japanese presence in Pyongyang to assist in the search and rescue efforts. Instead he preferred to use the issue as yet another pretext to refuse any presence in Pyongyang, to impose the strictest possible sanctions on North Korea and to veto any talk of negotiations over the nuclear issue. Worse, he would go on to warn South Korea from making an attempt to reconcile with North Korea – a warning that seems very much out of place today as both Koreas seem keen to begin talking to each other again.

In a bid to ease Japan’s abductee trauma Pyongyang, insisting that Megumi Yokota had died in 1994, produced what it said were charred bones from her cremation to prove it. This then allowed Tokyo to claim it had done a DNA testing of the bones and the result was negative – further proof that Pyongyang was lying. But scientific controversy erupted over the quality of the tests and over the basic question of whether decisive tests were possible under the circumstances. A leading scientific magazine, Nature, came out to insist accurate DNA testing of charred bones was impossible. It followed up with an editorial: "Japan is right to doubt North Korea's every statement. But its interpretation of the DNA tests has crossed the boundary of science's freedom from political interference.

Tokyo, after rejecting the Pyongyang request to return some of the bones for more objective testing elsewhere, doubled down with claims of Megumi sightings. Her attractive image was made focal to sustaining the abductee issue rage in Japan. Her elderly parents have been taken to meet two U.S. presidents in a bid to encourage U.S. outrage over the issue.

Japanese public support for the government’s position is strong, and not just because an uncritical public wants to go along with whatever Tokyo dictates. Partly it is due to an ingrained dislike of Korea and Koreans. But partly also it is genuine distress over the idea that Japanese citizens could be abducted and held by a foreign country. Even educated audiences will bristle if someone tries to suggest that Tokyo may have manipulated the issue for ulterior goals.

In 2009 well known progressive commentator Soichiro Tahara, speaking on Asahi TV, quoted an unnamed high level Foreign Ministry official as saying that Megumi Yokota and Keiko Arimoto, two of the best-known abductees, had died. He immediately came under attack from the two powerful abductee support organizations, which enjoy rightwing and government backing.
He was also attacked by Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone, who added that the Foreign Ministry worked from the assumption that all the claimed abductees were alive and should be returned to Japan as soon as possible. Tahara responded with a deep apology for having spoken about the two deaths but said he would not reveal the source of his information. He was then hit with a claim in a Kobe court for 10 million yen in damages for having caused emotional upset to the Arimoto parents.

Soon after, a media watchdog organization that seeks to enforce “broadcasting morality” ruled that both Tahara and Asahi TV should make proper apologies – i.e., their earlier apologies were not sufficient. Ordered by the Kobe court to reveal his sources, Tahara appealed to the higher Osaka court, which agreed with his position. Even so he was found liable on the original damages charge by the lower court and fined one million yen.

Hardly anyone came to the support of Tahara. The silence was damning in a nation that claims the right to freedom of speech. I, too, was to be a victim of the hysteria when a rightwing Sankei Shimbun commentator attacked me by misquoting me on the abductee issue. Overnight I could feel the freeze of hostile public opinion. I was asked to leave a high-level appointment with a large trading company.

In 2014 Tokyo finally relented and allowed the long-suffering Yokota parents to visit Megumi’s daughter, Kim Eun-kyung. But the visit had to be in Mongolia, where it was said that their granddaughter could talk freely. (Previous moves to talk to the granddaughter in Pyongyang or third countries had been blocked or bitterly criticized as siding with Pyongyang propaganda.)

Reports of the four-day visit made no mention of whether Megumi continued to exist or not, despite the years of Tokyo propaganda based on her presumed survival. When the parents returned from the visit I was able to ask them why they had made no mention of Megumi. The mother, the intelligent Sakie Yokota, simply said that they had gone to Mongolia to provide support for other abductee families.

A further epilogue comes with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un appealing for talks with his opposite number in Seoul – a confirmation, perhaps, of the prediction by our Resident North Korean specialist, Bradley Martin, that North Korean nuclear development was intended to provide a base for reunifying Korea on terms not unfavourable to Pyongyang.