Japan Counting on Kim Jong Un to Return Surviving Kidnap Victims

Japan is confident that some of the more than one dozen citizens abducted by North Korean agents over three decades ago are alive, and is counting on Kim Jong Un to return them, said the minister in charge of the issue.

“We are holding negotiations on the premise that the abductees are alive and that we are going to bring them all back,” Keiji Furuya, 61, said yesterday in an interview at his Tokyo office. Furuya said he expects North Korea to hand over in “late summer or early autumn” a report on the investigation into the fate of the abductees and other Japanese living in the isolated state.

For more than a decade, North Korea has maintained that apart from five Japanese returned in 2002, everyone it has admitted to abducting has died. Kim Jong Un’s willingness to conduct a new investigation may be a sign that U.S.-led efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, partially backed by China, are pressuring the regime to try to improve ties with Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration pledged to further ease bilateral sanctions if North Korea gives a full account of the victims.

“China and America are taking a tough attitude, so North Korea is really in trouble,” Furuya said. “North Korea is sending Japan a message that it really wants Japan’s support.”

The U.S. and South Korea were both briefed on Japan’s plans to engage North Korea on the abductees and supported the effort, he said.

13, 17, More?

North Korea, under Kim’s father Kim Jong Il, admitted in 2002 to abducting 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly to help teach Japanese to its spies. It returned five later that year, saying all the others were dead. Japan says at least 17 people were victims of the abduction campaign. The number may be much higher. The National Police Agency has a list of 860 missing people that may include more victims.

Kim should not be blamed for the deeds of his father, Furuya said.

“Kim Jong Un was not involved at all” in the abductions, Furuya said. “By resolving the abduction problem at this point, it could be the start of North Korea restoring its pride. I’m hoping Kim Jong Un will have these feelings.”

Furuya said that Kim’s experience living outside of North Korea made him better suited to act on the issue. Kim “breathed the air of western society” as he lived in Switzerland when he was young. “If he simply follows the teachings of his father, he can never become greater than his father,” the minister said.

Abe’s Popularity

The abduction issue remains an emotional one in Japan more than 40 years after the first disappearances and Abe was involved in helping secure the 2002 release as an aide to then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Achieving the release of more victims stands to boost the prime minister’s support level, which fell to 44 percent in a Jiji Press survey conducted Aug. 7-10, the lowest since he came to office in December 2012. Other recent polls have shown backing for Abe hovering at about 50 percent.

“When I took this post, I did so with the determination to resolve this problem under Prime Minister Abe’s leadership and to be the last abduction minister,” Furuya said.

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