Families Of Japanese Abducted By North Korea Hope For Help From Trump | KERA News

Families Of Japanese Abducted By North Korea Hope For Help From Trump

Nov 6, 2017
Originally published on November 7, 2017 10:38 am

During his visit to Tokyo on Monday, President Trump highlighted a dark moment in Japan's history when he met with families of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents. In the 1970s, North Korea abducted at least a dozen Japanese citizens and took them to Pyongyang to train North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs. One abductee was 13.

"I think it would be a tremendous signal if Kim Jong Un would send them back," Trump said at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the meeting. "That would be the start of something I think would be just something very special, if they would do that."

Koichiro Iizuka, one of the relatives who met with the president, was a toddler when his mother dropped him off at day care. She never returned.

"I'm turning 40 this year, and for 39 years, I haven't seen my mother. I have no memory of my mother," Iizuka said.

For years, he and other family members of kidnap victims had no explanation for what happened. Finally, in 2002, North Korea admitted it operated a state-sponsored abduction program, confirming it had taken Iizuka's mother and other Japanese citizens.

"I understand that for people who aren't familiar with the issue, it is an abnormal, unbelievable situation. It was like that for me in the beginning," Iizuka said.

The Japanese abductees — mostly young people — were taken to North Korea and forced to train North Korean spies so those spies could more easily infiltrate Japan.

"It's not just a Japanese problem," said Stephen Nagy, who teaches international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

Pyongyang has also kidnapped South Koreans, Europeans and Southeast Asians for the same purposes.

But, Nagy notes, "Where it's more sensitive in the Japanese case is the Japanese nationals have a sense of 'we're all Japanese' and that when a Japanese is not brought home to the homeland [and] put in the ancestral grave, there's a sense of detachment, a sense of amputation," Nagy says.

Iizuka believes his mother is alive and continues pushing for her return. He has pressed the issue with a succession of U.S. presidents, including Trump on Monday.

"We are speaking to the most influential figure in the world, and we ask him to speak on behalf of Japan and put pressure directly on Kim Jong Un for us. That is our hope," Iizuka said.

But because tensions are running so high with North Korea, other relatives of abductees aren't so hopeful.

Toru Hasuike's brother Kaoru was also taken in the 1970s — and is one of the handful of abductees whom North Korea did return. He came back in 2004.

Hasuike says his brother lives in freedom now, but because so many other Japanese are still held in North Korea, he doesn't feel free.

"There are these people who haven't come back," Hasuike explains, "so he has to think about them and what will happen to them and how his actions will affect them. So he is not mentally free. He is carrying them on his back until they all come back."

Hasuike advocates direct talks with North Korea instead of economic and military pressure.

"I'd say don't get in a war with these people," he says. "Negotiate."

The latest moves by the Japanese and U.S. governments are going in the opposite direction. Communications have gone cold after numerous nuclear provocations.

Nagy says the situation has opened up divisions among the abductees' families: Is ratcheting up pressure on the North going to get their loved ones home? Or is diplomatic engagement the safer route?

"Politicians have instrumentalized the kidnap victims in many different ways," Nagy says. "There's an interaction here between the international politics and domestic politics in both countries."

Some four decades after the Japanese were kidnapped, Iizuka says time is working against them.

"The only resolution to this is to have the abductees returned to our country. That has not happened. This issue is all or nothing," he says.

He and the other relatives don't agree on policy, but they do agree on their goal.

Becky Sullivan, Jake Adelstein and Mari Yamamoto contributed to this story.

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And during his time in Tokyo, President Trump also highlighted a dark moment in Japan's history. In the 1970's, North Korea abducted at least a dozen Japanese citizens and took them to Pyongyang to train North Korean spies. NPR's Elise Hu reports that some 40 years later, family members who are still hoping for their return find themselves in the middle of a geopolitical tug of war.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: When ordinary Japanese began disappearing, it left a mystery and family members behind. Koichiro Iizuka was a toddler when his mom dropped him off at day care and never returned.

KOICHIRO IIZUKA: (Through interpreter) I'm turning 40 this year, and for 39 years, I haven't seen my mother. I have no memory of my mother.

HU: In 2002, North Korea admitted it operated a state-sponsored abduction program and confirmed it had taken Iizuka's mother and at least a dozen other Japanese citizens.

IIZUKA: (Through interpreter) I understand that for people who aren't familiar with the issue, it is an abnormal, unbelievable situation. It was like that for me at the beginning.

HU: The Japanese abductees were mostly young people. They were taken to North Korea and forced to teach North Korean spies Japanese customs and language so those spies could then more easily infiltrate Japan. North Korea has also kidnapped South Koreans, Europeans and Southeast Asians for the same purposes.

STEPHEN NAGY: So it's not just a Japanese problem.

HU: Stephen Nagy teaches international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University.

NAGY: Where I think it's more sensitive in the Japanese case, is the Japanese nationals have a sense of we're all Japanese. The Japanese expression is (speaking Japanese) and that when a Japanese is not brought home to the homeland and not put in the ancestral grave, that there's a sense of detachment, a sense of amputation.

HU: Iizuka still believes his mom is alive and continues pushing for her return, pressing the issue with a succession of U.S. presidents, including Donald Trump today.

IIZUKA: (Through interpreter) We are speaking to the most influential figure in the world. And we ask him to speak on the behalf of Japan and put pressure directly on Kim Jong Un for us. That is our hope.

HU: But because tensions are running so high with North Korea, other relatives of abductees aren't feeling so hopeful.

Hello.

TORU HASUIKE: Hi.

HU: Toru Hasuike's brother was also taken in the 1970s but is one of the handful of kidnap victims that North Korea actually returned. He says his brother is living in freedom now. But because so many other Japanese are still held, he still acts like a hostage.

HASUIKE: (Through interpreter) There are these people who haven't come back, and he has to think about them and what will happen to them and how his actions will affect them. And so he is not mentally free. He is carrying them on his back until they all come back.

HU: Hasuike advocates direct talks with North Korea instead of economic and military pressure.

HASUIKE: (Through translator) I'd say, don't get in a war with these people. Negotiate.

HU: Latest moves by Japanese and U.S. governments are going in the opposite direction. Communications have gone cold after numerous nuclear provocations. And Stephen Nagy says the situation has opened up factions within the abductees' families. Is ratcheting up pressure on the north going to get their loved ones home, or is diplomatic engagement the safer route?

NAGY: Politicians have instrumentalized the kidnapped victims in many different ways. And I think there's an interaction here between international politics and domestic politics in both countries.

HU: Some 40 years since the Japanese were kidnapped, Iizuka, whose mom is still missing, says time is working against them.

IIZUKA: (Through interpreter) The only resolution to this is to have the abductees return to our country. That has not happened. This issue is all or nothing.

HU: He and the other relatives don't agree on policy, but they do agree on their goal. Elise Hu, NPR News, Tokyo.

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