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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (November 29, 2004)

Calls for North Korea Sanctions Intensify

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

Intense media coverage of the North Korean abduction issue has generated unprecedented levels of public anger in Japan and is threatening to derail Tokyo's cautious approach toward Pyongyang. Momentum is rapidly building for the withholding of food aid and the imposition of economic sanctions on the Stalinist state. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is resolutely trying to pursue a pragmatic approach with his unpredictable neighbor, but calls for tougher action are becoming so loud they are getting hard to ignore. Nuclear-nascent North Korea has warned that it would treat any form of sanctions as a declaration of war.

Despite the immense diplomatic risks and potential dangers, signs are emerging that Tokyo is being inexorably pushed toward shifting its policy. Both countries now find themselves caught in a dilemma, whatever course either of them takes, bilateral relations seem destined to deteriorate.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, North Korean agents abducted an undetermined number of Japanese nationals; Tokyo currently officially recognizes 15 victims, and most of their fates have yet to be determined, to Tokyo's satisfaction. They are believed to have been kidnapped in order to teach Pyongyang agents Japanese language, idioms and customs.

The fundamental problem is that the Japanese public does not believe Pyongyang's accounts about the missing citizens. In fact, the more snippets of information North Korea provides, the less Pyongyang is believed, and the more difficult it becomes for Tokyo to maintain a moderate line.

Early this year Japanese lawmakers approved a bill enabling the government to impose economic sanctions on any country considered a threat to Japan's security, meaning North Korea. The bill amends the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law and would allow Tokyo to halt trade, block cash remittances to North Korea and even halt ferry service.

Many ordinary Japanese, who usually have little interest in foreign affairs, are passionate about the abduction issue and fervently believe the time has come to initiate such action. It is difficult to describe the sheer strength of public feeling on this issue, which cuts across all ages.

Office worker Takahiro Kitamura expresses a very widely held view. He told Asia Times Online, "We have repeatedly asked them to give us the facts, but all they are giving us are poor-quality lies. They are adding to the pain of the abductee families and insulting the Japanese people. We have simply had enough of this, we just cannot trust anything they say. Put sanctions on them. Maybe then they will start telling the truth."

Yuko Usui, a young nurse, is typical of many people who have been deeply moved by the plight of the abductee families. She says, "All they want is to know what happened to their loved ones. They have suffered so terribly, I feel like crying with them and sometimes I do. All they want is the truth and that is the only thing North Korea will not give them."

Noriko Kurihara, a young businesswoman, makes another commonly heard observation. "They are giving us the same kind of crazy propaganda they feed their own people and expect us to believe it," she says. "Do they think Japanese people are stupid? We have scientists who can easily detect their faked evidence, so why do they keep producing it? " She adds, "Maybe in a country like that there is no difference between fact and fiction."

The press and leading lawmakers also articulate this public sentiment. In a recent editorial, the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's most popular daily newspaper, wrote, "North Korea's explanations are full of contradictions, and according to the results of a recent poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun, more than 80% of voters do not believe that Pyongyang conducted a serious investigation into the fate of the Japanese abductees ... Japan also must increase pressure on North Korea by being ready to impose economic sanctions on the country whenever it gives us unconvincing explanations."

To successfully resolve the abduction issue, the habitually secretive state must provide comprehensive and verifiable information on the fates of the missing Japanese citizens who it admits to abducting during the 1970s and 80s.

Pyongyang says it has repatriated the five surviving abductees and that the remainder are dead. However, the scant information it has so far provided to substantiate its claims has frequently proven to be contradictory, untrustworthy or simply fabricated.

The latest example of Pyongyang's duplicity is the photographs it recently presented to Tokyo of the purportedly deceased abductee Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped in 1977 at the age of 13. It is now believed that one of the three photos, which it is claimed were taken of the young woman while she endured captivity, may be a composite, doctored to hide a scene or a person in the original picture. This is the latest in a whole series of highly damaging revelations and has only entrenched the public's extremely deep mistrust of anything North Korea says and intensified demands for economic sanctions.

The abductees' families, especially Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, the parents of missing Megumi Yokota, have also been phenomenally effective in exposing the numerous flaws in Pyongyang's evidence, completely demolishing its already rock-bottom credibility. The Yokotas are currently appearing at venues up and down the country demanding that sanctions be imposed. After the visit of a Japanese delegation, Pyongyang sent back what it said were the ashes of Megumi and another person for DNA analysis.

Japan appears to have reached the stage where virtually nobody believes anything Pyongyang says. Influential political figures such as Shinzo Abe and Takeo Hiranuma, both leading candidates to succeed Koizumi, are also vigorously calling for sanctions. The major opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan, has also adopted an aggressive stance, significantly adding to the gathering momentum for imposing sanctions.

Senior diplomats are urging caution, warning that at this stage sanctions or the withholding of a scheduled 250,000 tons of humanitarian food aid would exacerbate the situation, extinguish any hope of finding out what happened to the missing abductees, jeopardize the six-party talks on halting North Korea's nuclear program and trigger a potential catastrophe in which tens of thousands of North Koreans might starve to death, destabilizing the region and prompting the unpredictable regime to take dangerous actions.

A Japanese diplomat, who did not wish to be named, told Asia Times Online, "Our experience in dealing with this awkward regime indicates that the imposition of even limited sanctions at this juncture would most probably be very counterproductive and hinder both our short-term and long-term objectives and make it harder to conduct any productive negotiations in the future."

While diplomatic logic dictates that economic sanctions would not be effective or advisable, public opinion is threatening to overturn this policy. It is becoming increasingly difficult for Koizumi to maintain his steady pragmatic course. In the last few days, the situation has reached an almost critical point, and it is becoming difficult to predict exactly what will happen next.

At the weekend's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum summit in Chile, Koizumi raised the abduction issue, calling for help in resolving it: "We want to continue to request support from APEC on this matter." He also said Tokyo would continue to urge North Korea to halt its nuclear development program.

The prime minister appears reluctant to abandon his carefully calculated approach. However, unless North Korea suddenly becomes more forthcoming or the media tones down its strident anti-Pyongyang rhetoric, Koizumi may have little alternative than to adopt much tougher tactics.

A week ago, sanctions seemed highly improbable, now they seem like a real possibility. This is a development that is worrying for the leadership in both countries, and alarmingly, neither is fully in charge of the forces driving the debate.

(This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 23 November 2004,, and is republished with permission. Copyright belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

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