Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.10.28

Hundreds of Japanese Citizens in North Korea

JBpress on October 24, 2014

Another U.S. citizen, this time one who had been detained in Pyongyang for five months, was finally released while I was drafting this column in Washington D.C. While Americans react very emotionally in watching the family reunion of the Fowles, I muttered to the TV screen that, "Japan also has citizens held captive in North Korea," not just a few but probably hundreds.

On this heartwarming breaking news from East Asia, American TV commentators quite naturally and repeatedly asserted that the U.S. government should do whatever possible to get back home the two other American citizens who are still held in North Korea after having been sentenced to years of hard labor for alleged "illegal religious activities" or "attempted espionage."

According to CNN reports, Pyongyang emailed a statement reading that, "Comrade Kim Jong Un, the First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, in deference to agreement between the Supreme Leaders of the DPRK and the US, granted a special dispensation for the American Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was being indicted, to be released after his case had been dismissed."

Some pundits in Washington have already started speculating on whether there was a secret deal between Pyongyang and Washington. They also suspect that North Korea might have benefited, or is to eventually benefit, from the release of Mr. Fowle, because the North Korean statement referred to his release as "in deference to agreement" and "a special dispensation" of Comrade Kim.

The role played by the U.S. government is still unclear. A State Department spokesperson just stated that, "We welcome the DPRK's decision to release him. [...] We remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, [...] again call on the DPRK to immediately release them, [and] will continue to work actively on their cases."

Coincidentally, earlier on the same day in Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan is sending a special team to Pyongyang to reinforce pressure for a North Korean investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped decades ago. The decision was made despite objections by some of the abductees' families, who are skeptical about Pyongyang's sincerity.

For those who do not know about the "abduction issue" in Japan, the following is where we are now: After long secret negotiations, Pyongyang finally admitted in 2002 that it had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens and returned five to Japan. However, still unknown is the fate of the allegedly dead or non-existent eight others as well as that of more than 800 other Japanese still kept in North Korea.

The special team of Japanese officials is expected to have meetings in Pyongyang on October 28 and 29. Japan eased some sanctions on North Korea in July in return for its having reopened a probe into the status of the abductees. Pyongyang's answer in September, however, was that they have no details to report and instead invited Japanese officials to visit North Korea for an update.

Just imagine what would happen in the United States if more than 800 U.S. citizens were being detained in North Korea for a long period for no reason. In the case of Japan, more than a dozen innocent citizens, including a 13-year-old schoolgirl, were physically captured in Japan by Pyongyang's intelligence operatives and secretly transported to North Korea.

Like the U.S., Japan's government also must do whatever it can for the return of its citizens. Prime Minister Abe, announcing the dispatch of the team to North Korea, did not fail to warn that "We have said all along that North Korea must solve this issue or it has no future," while Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga downplayed expectations for the potentially risky visit.

Some in Washington may wonder if the officials' dispatch to Pyongyang will undermine the U.S., Japan and South Korea's solidarity regarding North Korea. However, when the U.S. government says that, "The U.S. government will continue to work actively on their [the abductees'] cases," the silent majority of Japanese are aware that this means that the U.S. will do whatever possible within the framework of tripartite coordination.

Any unjust abduction or detention of its citizens in North Korea is a sensitive and emotional issue in a nation's local politics. Elected officials in any government have no choice but to take all available measures to try to free them. Thus, Tokyo will not and should not voice any concern when the U.S. government exerts its best efforts to do so and, of course, vice versa.