(AFP) – Dec 17, 2007
NIIGATA, Japan (AFP) — As waves whip onto a lonely beach in northern Japan, a signpost is the only reminder of a kidnapping that 30 years later is straining relations between the world's two biggest economies.
Megumi Yokota was a 13-yearold Japanese schoolgirl when she was snatched by North Korean agents off Yorii Beach and bundled into a waiting ship on November 15, 1977.
She has since become the face of more than a dozen Japanese abductees, and of a dispute that has long bedevilled Tokyo's relations with North Korea and is now testing its ties with the United States, its closest ally.
Japan has warned the United States that relations will suffer if Washington removes North Korea from a list of terrorist states while ignoring the abduction issue.
But in subtle ways, Japan is itself beginning to tone down its hardline stance, apparently fearful of isolating itself in diplomatic efforts on North Korea and as public interest in the issue here wanes, analysts said.
Even in Niigata, where the signpost near the beach by the Sea of Japan (East Sea) asks for information on Megumi's kidnapping, housewife Mayumi Murakami says local people "don't think we can do anything about it any more."
"Older generations still remember the abductions but that's not the case for us younger generations who don't feel as connected -- they are stories of the past," said the 36-year-old.
Another housewife, 32-year-old Hiromi Ota, said she was unafraid.
"We don't feel threatened by North Korea even if it lies just across the sea. We don't believe it can possibly abduct people again or even launch missiles here," she said.
Japan says North Korea kidnapped 17 of its nationals between 1977 and 1983 to train the regime's spies.
During a landmark 2002 visit by Japan's then premier Junichiro Koizumi, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese.
He returned five abductees and their families and declared the case closed, saying others were dead, and there has been no obvious progress since.
"Japanese public interest has faded because nothing has moved forward and it's been dragging on for so long," said Masao Okonogi, a North Korea expert at Keio University.
But Okonogi said public interest in the abduction issue could reawaken if there are any fresh developments in the row.
Japan's parliament recently passed a resolution urging the United States not to take North Korea off its list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for progress in a nuclear disarmanent deal.
But there is also a sense that a delisting, which would make North Korea eligible for US aid and loans from international financial institutions, may be inevitable.
If the United States delists North Korea, then "in a sense it could be an opportunity for Japan to work towards improving its relations with North Korea," said Kyoko Nakayama, special advisor to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda on the abduction issue.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said recently that the US terror list was not Japan's only tool. He said North Korea stood to benefit economically from a peace deal with Japan, which would likely provide compensation for colonial rule.
"This would be great leverage," Komura said.
Tokyo has never established ties with North Korea, which fired a missile over Japan's main island in 1998.
Fukuda's predecessor Shinzo Abe built his political career by campaigning on the abduction row. Abe's government slapped a sweeping ban on imports from the impoverished North to pressure Pyongyang on its nuclear drive and abductions.
He also refused any funding for February's US-backed six-nation disarmament-for-aid deal with North Korea due to the kidnappings.
Abe quit in September after a slew of domestic scandals. While officials insist that Fukuda is also committed to the abduction issue, analysts say the veteran moderate is expected to put more emphasis on negotiations than on sanctions.
"Japan's attitude has changed quite a bit under Fukuda. He wants to put Japan back into the six-party framework, unlike Abe whose policies stepped outside of its boundaries," said Professor Okonogi of Keio University.
Fukuda's position "is that unless Japan prioritises normalisation (of diplomatic ties) in the negotiation, the abduction issue will remain unresolved."
Although the Yokotas and other bereaved families believe the only solution is to impose harsher sanctions on North Korea, they have an absolute faith in the government's endeavours, which could be key to unlocking the deadlock.
"The Japanese government is doing so well to tackle this problem. We trust the government," said Sakie Yokota, Megumi's mother.
"By continuing to show a strong attitude Japan will ultimately force North Korea to release the abductees," her husband Shigeru added.
More than simply public interest in the issue, what Japan needs most is people's understanding, said Okonogi.
"If Japan persuades North Korea to allow an investigation team or the Yokotas to visit where their daughter was held, the public would understand that even if all the abductees have not returned, the government did its best," he said.
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