by Kensatsukan Gaijin

In a surprising turn, North Korea announced on May 29 that they will launch a special commission to investigate its abductions of Japanese citizens.  This divisive and emotional issue has been a difficult challenge for Japanese - North Korean relations for almost 40 years.  At talks held in Stockholm, Sweden, North Korean negotiators agreed to Japanese requests to investigate what happened to more than a dozen Japanese believed to have been kidnapped, reversing the North’s earlier insistence that the issue had been settled.  


The story of the abductees began with mysterious disappearances in the 1970s and 1980s, when young people began to disappear from coastal areas of Japan.  The victims were almost all young men and women, but lacked any real financial or political connections.  The victims were ordinary people - a nurse, a noodle chef, a carpenter, and the life.  The youngest, Megumi Yokota, was 13 when she disappeared in November 1977, from the Japanese west coast city of Niigata.  Then, in the 1980s, rumors began that the victims had been taken to North Korea.  A postcard or a sighting would claim that the missing Japanese citizens were secretly living in North Korea, now living as prisoners and teaching Japanese to North Korean spies.  Other stories claimed that some citizens were abducted to allow North Korean agents to assume their identities, or killed because they observed North Korean incursions, or even kidnapped to become wives to the Japanese terrorists who had hijacked a JAL flight in 1970.  


For years, North Korea denied the accusations, until 2002, when it admitted that it had kidnapped Japanese citizens; North Korea even returned five of them, still alive. Although North Korea believed the admission was an act of goodwill that would endear it to Japan, instead, the revelation poisoned Japanese-North Korean relations.  The Japanese public was outraged and did not believe North Korea's insistence that the other abductees had died. Estimates of the number of abductees has ranged from 13 (the number claimed by North Korea), to 17 (the number claimed by the Japanese government), to 100 (the number claimed by advocacy groups).


Japan, for its part, has agreed to ease sanctions in exchange for the inquiry.  As a first step, Japan agreed to end an eight-year entry ban on the Manyongbong-92 ferry, which sails between Niigata and the east coast port of Wonsan in North Korea.  The North Korean committee will also examine the fate of other Japanese nationals in the North, including those who accompanied their Korean spouses to the country in the 1950s, and search for the remains of Japanese who died there in the chaotic final days of World War II.