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Fake ashes, very real North Korean sanctions
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il must rue the day he ever confessed to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in September 2002 that his Hermit Kingdom's spies had abducted Japanese civilians in the 1970s and 1980s. And he must rue his recent decision to turn over some bogus ashes to "prove" two abductees were dead. But the starting point was the confession, the beginning of his tragic series of miscalculations - tragic for Japan, Koizumi, Japanese abductees, the missing and their anguished, anxious kin.

And potentially tragic for hungry North Koreans, if an enraged Japan imposes economic sanctions. However, many in Japan think Tokyo's solo economic sanctions would not be effective, and despite public opinion, such punishment appears unlikely. If China and South Korea were to impose sanctions along with Japan, the effect would be powerful, but also unlikely. And Koizumi is afraid solo sanctions would undermine the six-party nuclear talks. Many observers say more devastating for North Korea would be getting to the truth about the bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987, because it would clearly reveal the nature of the North Korean regime.

Still, an overwhelming majority of the enraged Japanese public wants economic sanctions, cutting trade and desperately needed humanitarian assistance to North Korea. Koizumi is having a hard time maintaining a balanced course. The chorus for sanctions has become louder since what North Korea claimed were the ashes of two dead abductees, including Megumi Yokota, abducted at age 13, and another person, were proved by mitochondrial analysis to be those of other persons.

As Japan is obliged to continue the cat-and-mouse game of diplomacy with the world's most reclusive nation over the issue of abducted Japanese, the latest unsavory developments have just tightened a political, and possibly a sanctions noose about the neck of Kim Jong-il. The developments in the abduction issue not only have roused Japanese public fury over him, but also have stirred old memories of the scourge of North Korea's terrorism - the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987. For sure, Kim cannot make a complete settlement of the abduction issues - some are still missing and unaccounted for. He will strive to keep brazening out everything linking North Korea to the bombing of this civilian airliner and other subversive activities, by calling black white and vice versa and playing a game of brinkmanship. The abduction issue is just beginning to tell us the secrets of what is probably the world's most dangerous country.

This really is a very bad spot for Koizumi to be in, as he appears to have been in a rush to normalize diplomatic relations with Kim Jong-il, without strongly demanding credible information on the other missing Japanese abductees. Critics say he appears to have fallen in love with his own political legacy and place in history, looking toward the rest of his term, ending in September 2006.

Abduction truth unfolds
Last week new facts and valuable information on North Korea's kidnapping unfolded from the testimony of Fukie Chimura, 49, one of the five Japanese abductees repatriated to Japan from North Korea in October 2002; this was 24 years after they were kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978. Her testimony has reinforced the theories that Pyongyang hesitates to release the 10 other missing Japanese and provide information on them because they were forced by Pyongyang to play a key role in training spies and taking part in espionage activities. It is believed that in October 2002 North Korea released the only five abductees who were not forced to engage in significant covert operations. Of the other 10 missing Japanese, Pyongyang said that eight were dead and the other two never entered the country.

According to Chimura's testimony to relatives of Japanese abductees, Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped in 1977 at age 13, taught Japanese to a Korean woman named "Suk-heui" as part of a spy education program.

This "Suk-heui" is believed to be Kim Suk-heui. Former North Korean agent Kim Hyun-hee, who now lives in South Korea after being sentenced to death for blowing up the Korean Air jet in 1987 (she was subsequently granted amnesty), wrote in her autobiography The Tears of My Soul that she received intelligence education with another woman agent called Kim Suk-heui.

Japanese media reported on Wednesday that in 1984 Megumi Yokota married a North Korean agent to whom she had taught Japanese. Yokota was said to have taught at Kim Jong-il Political and Military University, which is known to be a spy-training facility in Pyongyang.

Chimura also said that Yaeko Taguchi, another abductee, taught Japanese to a woman called "Okka", a pseudonym or code name of Kim Hyun-hee. North Korea claims Taguchi died in 1986. Japan's law-enforcement authorities confirmed in 1991 that Taguchi, under the name "Li Un-hye", taught Japanese to Kim Hyun-hee.

The bombing of the Korean Air airliner en route from Baghdad to Seoul killed 115 persons on board. Many observers believe North Korea aimed to prevent South Korea from holding the 1988 Seoul Olympics. North Korea has denied any involvement in the terrorist attacks on the airliner at all, by saying it's a malicious fabrication of South Korea and others. But Kim Hyun-hee, echoing many observers, claimed in her book that Kim Jong-il masterminded the 1987 bombing by giving her the order. (Kim Jong-il is also believed to be the mastermind of the 1983 Yangon bombing in Myanmar, which was aimed at then South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan.)

For Kim Jong-il, to give Tokyo credible information and come clean about the abduction issues by confessing everything would be like signing his own political death warrant. It would certainly undermine the shredded legitimacy of his regime and his reputation. He will never do that, even if Tokyo puts pressure on Pyongyang by imposing strong economic sanctions.

The abduction issue is very similar to the Pyongyang nuclear crisis. Not a few experts believe North Koreans will not give up their nuclear deterrent because they believe once they give it up their regime will be weakened and they will be vulnerable without the big nuclear card. The abduction issue is the same. Kim Jong-il will not and cannot totally resolve the abduction issues because once he does, his regime will be be clearly exposed as a rogue and terrorist state - especially at a time when North Korea wants the US to remove it from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism. North Korea cannot just let other abductees, including Megumi Yokota, go home at least for the foreseeable future, even if they are alive.

Public fury over North Korea's brazen lies
As Tokyo is having a hard time dealing with the abduction issue, one mother's words have been emotionally venting and fueling ordinary Japanese anger at North Korea recently.

"I can hear Megumi say: 'Mother, don't believe their words. I am still here. Please, help me,'" said Sakie Yokota, the mother of Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped in 1977 at age 13, as soon as a Japanese delegation to Pyongyang brought back to Tokyo the alleged remains of Megumi last month. Sakie has never believed her only daughter's death, which North Korea had asserted since Koizumi first visited Pyongyang to hold a summit meeting with Kim in September 2002. Since then, Sakie has persistently voiced her own suspicions over Megumi's death.

Last Wednesday, the mother's suspicions over those remains proved valid. The remains, or ashes, Pyongyang provided last month to Tokyo as evidence of the death of Megumi, a symbolic heroine of the victims' tragedies in Japan, have turned out to be those of two other persons', the results of one Japanese university's cutting-edge DNA tests showed. Teikyo University in Tokyo, which Japanese authorities had asked to conduct a DNA analysis, found out that the ashes were not Megumi's after using so-called mitochondrial DNA technology.

Pyongyang apparently undervalued Japan's state-of-the-art DNA technology. It had sought to draw the curtain on the abduction problem as swiftly as possible by handing over to a Japanese team human remains that had been burned at high temperature, in an apparent effort to obliterate DNA - and calling them Megumi's ashes. 

North Korea's act "is clearly against the spirit of the Pyongyang Declaration", said Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, who announced the results. He expressed a vehement and scathing protest against Pyongyang's blatant insincerity, which he said has made it quite difficult for Tokyo to ship the remaining half of 250,000 tons of promised food to the starving nation.

Megumi's father, Shigeru, a head of the abductees association, also voiced anger at the "fabrication of the remains", strongly urging the government to impose economic sanctions on North Korea. Shigeru is nationally known as a spokesman for the families of the victims.

Last Thursday, the following day, Hosoda announced that the remains of Kaoru Matsuki, who was kidnapped in Madrid in 1980 at age 26, also turned out to be those of someone else. This Monday, the Yokota family-led group, which was notified of another DNA test result by the government, said the remains of Matsuki also proved to be bogus. The group said North Korea mixed up the remains of five other persons.

This is not the first time Pyongyang has submitted bogus remains to Tokyo, claiming they are Matsuki's. Two years ago, it also handed over the false remains of Matsuki to a Japanese delegation. At that time, Japanese osteologists found the remains to be those of a woman in her 50s.

Key polls show majority favor sanctions
Fueled by North Korea's ongoing acts, the majority of Japanese are now in favor of economic sanctions on North Korea. According to the recent opinion poll conducted by the liberal Mainichi Shimbun this past weekend, 72% of those polled favored sanctions, while only 20% of those surveyed were against it. The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun's latest opinion poll had similar results; it said 74% of those polled were for economic sanctions, meanwhile 19% were against such punishment.

Japan is North Korea's third-largest trading partner, following China and South Korea. The amount of trade hit 30 billion yen (US$285 million) last year. South Korea and China oppose Japanese sanctions on North Korea, saying the step could complicate efforts to end the impasse over the communist country's nuclear weapons drive. The United States, meanwhile, has warned Japan to be cautious about growing calls to impose economic sanctions on North Korea because the unpredictable regime could "outmaneuver" such a move, a Japanese official said.

But clearly, North Korea's blatant insincerity in dealing with the abduction issue has strengthened the case for economic sanctions.

In the near term, Japan will be unlikely to impose sanctions. Japanese lawmakers know that, but still call loudly for sanctions, saying that they really mean it applies more pressure on North Korea.

On Tuesday, meanwhile, a spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement blasting Japan for saying the ashes were not those of Megumi as claimed by Pyongyang, the Kyodo News reported, citing the Korean Central News Agency.

The North Korean spokesman said that his country suspected Japan's "analyses" of the ashes was based on a political plot meticulously contrived to achieve a certain objective - discrediting Pyongyang. The spokesman even warned it would regard any sanctions imposed by Tokyo as a declaration of war that would be met with an "effective physical" response.

This statement suggests that Pyongyang now is taking precautions against Japan's accusations, as well as calls for sanctions by the public and politicians. Kim Jong-il chose to protect his regime and himself rather than to raise the white flag over the abduction issues. Recent incidents speak volumes about North Korea's regime and its lack of sensitivities to international public opinion.

South Korea's policy is based on there being no alternative to engaging with North Korea in an effort to accomplish beneficial changes there - and Koizumi helped this engagement policy with his visits to Pyongyang. Excluding the US, Russia and China also supported this policy. But this engagement policy has so far proved fruitless in resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis and abduction issue. The rest of the world appears to have no recourse but to wait for Kim Jong-il's downfall, and it could be a long wait.

Kosuke Takahashi is a former staff writer at the Asahi Shimbun and is currently a freelance correspondent based in Tokyo. He can be contacted at

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Dec 16, 2004
Asia Times Online Community

NE Asia alarmed by US's tougher NK stance
(Dec 10, '04)

Japan edges closer to NK sanctions
(Nov 23, '04)

The ashes of little Megumi
(Nov 18, '04)

Japan prepares sanctions noose (Feb 6, '04)

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