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The ashes of little Megumi
By Richard Hanson

TOKYO - It was 27 years ago to the day that 13-year-old Megumi Yokota was kidnapped by North Korean agents, her mother reminded a crowded press conference across the street from Japan's parliament building on Tuesday. She would be 40 now, had she lived, and some angry Japanese are calling for economic sanctions against North Korea, banning cash and aid.

All indications are that Megumi is long dead. The question now is whether Japan will seek to punish North Korea for the crime of kidnapping at least 15 Japanese that the Japanese government believes were taken to North Korea several decades ago, presumably to train Pyongyang agents in Japanese language, idiom and customs.

The human issue here is so emotive that it eclipsed the week-long furor over the intrusion of a Chinese nuclear submarine into Japan's territorial waters. And it casts doubt on how Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will respond to North Korea and how he will handle the next round of talks on defusing the Korean nuclear crisis. The issue is moot right now, since North Korea has said all talks are off until there is a thorough official examination of South Korea's unauthorized experiments with nuclear materials years ago.

Japan's retaliation could come in the form of economic sanctions, such as halting regular trade and shipping, and even suspending a second delivery of food that had been pledged as aid to North Korea, an inducement to release the living hostages, provide information on the mission and cooperate in the nuclear talks. Or, the government could simply continue talks with North Korea after analyzing the documents and human remains obtained from North Korea by a Japanese delegation that has recently returned from a week of talks and investigations into those Japanese believed to have been abducted, but still unaccounted for.

The latter process of laboratory analysis, political and strategic analysis might take at least seven to 10 days, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told reporters. Just how the public will react to the findings is hard to judge, but after two years of frustrating talks the issue still generates high emotions Japan. The National Police Agency, which is investigating the kidnappings as domestic crimes, says it may take much longer than 10 days.

When, in September 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi went to Pyongyang for a historic summit meeting, leader Kim Jong-il admitted to the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens, saying five were alive and eight were dead. Japan claims (and North Korea denies) that two other Japanese were kidnapped. North Korea claims that several of the graves of deceased Japanese were washed away in floods. Some Japanese groups claim that many more were abducted.

The families of the eight reported dead and the two others believed missing have rejected North Korea's explanation. The five surviving abductees came home in October 2002 and now live in Japan. One is the wife of accused deserter Charles Robert Jenkins, who pleaded guilty to desertion; he was sentenced to 30 days and given a dishonorable discharge. He expects to live in Japan with his family.

But back to little Megumi and the search for more information about other abductees. Mitoji Yabunaka led the Japanese delegation to Pyongyang, joined by director general of the Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau; the North Korean team was led by Ma Chol-su, chief of the Foreign Ministry's Asian Affairs Department.

The forensic evidence to determine the fate of Megumi - in the form of cremation ash, provided by her Korean husband and Korean-born daughter - was carried back from Pyongyang to confirm the identity through DNA testing. In Japan, Megumi's mother and father have become well known as the stubborn leaders of a movement to pressure the government into action and find out the truth about other missing Japanese.

Megumi is reported to have commited suicide in a North Korean hospital in 1993 while being treated for depression. The family doubts that account, which came out two years ago. The Japanese delegation talked to the doctor who treated her, but no details were uncovered.

At their press conference, the Yokotas distributed heretofore-unseen pictures of Megumi, as she grew older in North Korean captivity. Megumi's final journey home, in a chartered commercial plane, came just over two years after Koizumi opened normalization talks with Kim Jong-il.

Hosoda, the Japanese government's chief spokesman, has already called the latest round of bilateral talks between the two countries "disappointing".

There was no progress at all in terms of an outcome, Hosoda said. Other cabinet members joined in the criticism. Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Nariaki Nakayama called for immediate economic sanctions.

"I would say don't insult us," Nakayama said. "It is time to show the Japanese are angry at being constantly insulted. We should consider economic sanctions in stages." Environment Minister Yuriko Koike also called for sanctions.

Koizumi wobbled in his own criticism of North Korea, preferring to wait until official reports are submitted to his cabinet. "I can see signs of an effort on the part of the North Koreans, but there are points in which the contents are not something that Japan can be satisfied with," he told reporters.

Koizumi has learned that dealing with Kim, the Dear Leader, is not profitable. He has made two trips so far. North Korea is desperate to normalize relations with other countries, preferably those that will provide that country with money and aid. Two years, one analyst commented, the truth is that meeting the North Korean leader is not going to be fun.

Kim remains an enigmatic leader-for-life of a very poor but well-armed country that has a nuclear capability. And it is still at war with the allies that his father, Kim Il-sung, attacked decades ago. When Koizumi first met with the current leader, Kim admitted his country had abducted innocent Japanese men, women and children. He even apologized. That was a sort of defining moment for Kim. He was telling the truth, in hopes of gaining advantages, but it did little to ease the shock for the families whose children and relatives went missing many years ago. Instead, it stirred outrage.

Japan is part of the so-called six-country talks that are being held to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear-weapons program. The other participants are China, Russia, the United States and South Korea. At the time, the US, the chief non-Korean combatant in the Korean War, had already put Pyongyang on its "axis of evil" list, based on suspicious that North Korea could be developing nuclear weapons.

The two Koreas do share the common bad experience of having been made a part of the Japanese empire early in the 20th century (1912-45). When Japan and South Korea opened official diplomatic relations, it came with a hefty financial package to ease the way. Two years ago in North Korea, Koizumi offered the same apology for Japan's past behavior that had been made to the South.

The return of the ashes of Megumi is part of the legacy that needs to be brought to a peaceful closure.

Richard Hanson, veteran correspondent and expert on Japanese economy, finance and politics, is the author of Money Lords: The Pride and Folly of Japan's Finance Ministry Elites.

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Nov 18, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

Accused deserter a touchstone for Japan-US ties
(Nov 17, '04)

Strange saga of Charles Robert Jenkins
(Jun 5, '04)

Koizumi's risky mission half accomplished (May 25, '04)

Koizumi's hostage gamble (May 23, '04)

Japan prepares NK sanctions noose
(Feb 6, '04)

Japanese right manipulates abduction issue (Jan 15, '04)

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