After decades of denial, vague explanations and a surprising acknowledgement, North Korea says it will initiate a new investigation to uncover what happened to more than a dozen Japanese nationals abducted by the regime since the 1970s.
The announcement came from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday amid talks between Japan and North Korea being held in Stockholm this week.
North Korean negotiators agreed to reopen the investigations into the disappearance of 13 Japanese citizens believed to have been abducted for espionage purposes.
“This doesn’t mean North Korea suddenly likes Japanese or vice versa, but it’s the first time they’ve made progress with Japanese relations in over a decade,” Charles Armstrong, a Korean studies professor at Columbia University, told VICE News.
If North Korea follows through, Japan said it would consider loosening sanctions. There was even the discussion of humanitarian aid. This development is being touted as a crucial shift in relations between the countries, which have been increasingly strained over the abduction issue.
“It’s the single most important impediment to Japanese-North Korean relations. The thing that really has political importance and public attention in Japan is the abductions,” Armstrong said.
During a news conference Abe said the “mission will never end until the day comes when families of all abduction victims are able to embrace their children in their own arms.”
“We have tackled the problem with this determination and we hope that this will be the first step toward an overall solution,” he continued.
While the abduction negotiations are a step forward in patching up a historically rocky relationship, they also dredge up a sensitive issue that has contributed to decades of bad relations between them.
“This is super emotional for the Japanese, it’s one of the really big leftover issues for Japan,” Steven Weber, a political science professor at University of California, Berkley, told VICE News.
Inside the Abductions
Details about the abductions have always been pretty murky.
Starting in the 1970s, when Eternal President Kim Il-Sung’s dictatorship was in full swing, rumors emerged that North Korea was using Japanese informants of Korean descent to kidnap citizens.
There was 13-year-old Megumi Yokota who disappeared in 1977 on her way home from badminton practice in a Japanese seaside village. There was also Keiko Arimoto who vanished in 1983 while studying English in London. At least another 11 individuals are believed to have been victims of similar situations.
Experts believe the abductees were recruited as spies or used to train North Korean agents in Japanese language and culture.
For decades, North Korea denied any of this was going on.
But in 2002, then-President Kim Jong-Il admitted the regime had in fact kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens — although some estimate as many as 100 may have been abducted in total.
North Korea said five of the abductees were alive within the country, while the other eight had died.
The revelation came as a shock.
James Person, coordinator of the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Wilson Center, told VICE News that the 2002 events unfolded as the country was becoming concerned about its dependence on China and looking to normalize relations with other countries.
Kim Jong-Il thought addressing the abductions would speed up that process with Japan.
“Kim Jong-Il thought it was being open and frank, but he didn’t think it would necessarily derail the process,” Person said. “He thought honesty would open things up, but in fact the opposite happened because of [Japan’s] public reaction — something I don’t think North Koreans understand.”
Japanese media took hold of the story and public outrage ensued. The explanation North Korea provided about the fate of the victims seemed questionable.
While the five surviving victims returned to Japan, the government wanted more details about the others.
For example, North Korea reported Yokota had killed herself in 1994, but when the Japanese tested her supposed remains the DNA results were not a match.
Arimoto died in the fall of 1988, just a month after she had managed to send a letter to her family in Japan.
It is believed that she was killed by the regime to instill fear in others.
Talks between the countries collapsed and in the years since diplomatic ties have been non-existent.
Improved Relations a Possibility?
Nearly a decade after Kim Jong-Il’s shocking reveal, this week’s abduction negotiations come at a time when both countries are in a place to benefit from improved relations.
According to Weber, Japan is starting to realize it can’t rely on the US government for help in the region as it has in the past. He explains that the government is starting to go out on its own to develop relationships.
Another factor is that Abe’s conservative, nationalistic reputation allows him the flexibility to take initiative with North Korea, despite hard feelings from Japanese citizens.
Armstrong says if he was a liberal prime minister he would probably face a much harder time.
For North Korea, the renewed desire to diversify its economic partners beyond China is the key factor in its attempt to reengage with Japan.
“It has a lot to do with recognizing that they are utterly dependent on China and they’re not comfortable with it,” Person said. ”The standard thinking is that they are really close, but look at the historical record, there is a profound sense of mistrust with China.”
He says under the leadership of President Kim Jong-Un, who took office in 2012, the North Korean government has been focused on improving economics.
“Kim Jong-Un and the people around him seem to be more confident that North Korea can reach out to other countries,” Person said.
But it may be a bit optimistic to assume there is a sophisticated strategy behind North Korea’s actions this week. Weber says it is hard to tell whether there is deeper intent. He explains that when North Korea feels like the world isn’t paying attention, it finds a way to get noticed — whether it’s through conciliatory gestures or by “rattling the sabers.”
“Who knows what the hell the North Koreans are doing. Every now and again they need to sort of attract attention,” he said. “I would never be surprised if they talk about this and the next day they launch a weapons test. That just wouldn’t be contradictory at all, that’s the way they play the game.”