Japan puts more pressure on North Korea

Posted in Other | 16-Jun-06 | Author: Hisane Masaki

TOKYO - In a significant move aimed at ratcheting up pressure on North Korea, Japan's diet (parliament) on Friday enacted the North Korean Human Rights Act, which calls for economic sanctions against Pyongyang unless progress is made on the country's human-rights situation, including finally resolving the issue of abductions of Japanese nationals.

The new law requires the government to impose economic sanctions against North Korea if no progress is made on the abductions and other human-rights issues. It also contains a provision calling for support for North Korean defectors.

The new law specifically refers to the possibility of invoking two laws that were revised or newly enacted in 2004. One is the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law, which allows the government to halt trade and block cash remittances to North Korea - or to any other country - based on its own judgment, even without a United Nations resolution calling for such sanctions.

Another is a newly enacted law that authorizes the government to ban the docking of North Korean ships or ships that have visited North Korea at Japanese ports. Among the most likely target would be the Mangyongbyon-92 Ferry, the main direct link between the two countries, running between the North Korean port of Wonsan and Japan's port of Niigata.

Pyongyang has often warned that economic sanctions would be tantamount to a "declaration of war". And it is true that North Korea would suffer if Japan actually imposed them. Until 2002, Japan was North Korea's second-largest trading partner after China, facilitated in part by the large ethnic-Korean community in Japan. However, the two-way trade has shrunk considerably in recent years, reflecting increasingly tense ties. Japan has fallen behind China, South Korea and Thailand.

On the day the Japanese House of Representatives approved the North Korea Human Rights Bill, Pyongyang warned Tokyo against pressing too hard on the abduction issue and called on Japan to pay compensation for abuses Koreans suffered during the years of Japanese colonial rule. The North Korean Foreign Ministry reiterated in a statement that the abduction issue has already been settled, alleging that Japan aims to "isolate [North Korea] by taking advantage of the hostile US policy toward it".

The North Korean Human Rights Act comes amid myriad tensions with Pyongyang on a variety of issues. There is, of course, the burning question of how to deal with North Korea's nuclear-weapons program. There is the matter of Pyongyang's printing counterfeit US$100 bills. More recently, US intelligence has detected signs that North Korea may be preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile.

None of these issues, however, touch Japanese people as deeply as the kidnapping of some of their citizens, some mere teenage girls, in the 1970s and 1980s. Visiting Pyongyang in September 2002, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi got Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to admit that North Korean agents had, indeed, kidnapped some Japanese in that period. As far as North Korea is concerned, 13 were abducted and eight died: all are accounted for; case closed.

The Japanese remain unconvinced, suspecting that some of the eight Pyongyang says have died may still be alive and that other kidnap victims are yet to be tallied. The poster child for Japan is Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 when she was just 13 and thus would be in her mid-40s now. Pyongyang claims she is one of the eight who died, and in November 2004 handed over her ashes. Japanese DNA analysis found that the ashes could not have belonged to Yokota. The idea that Pyongyang handed over someone else's ashes stirred an outcry in Japan.

The Yokota family continues to keep the issue bubbling before the public and to hold the government's feet to the fire. Sakie Yokota, the 70-year-old mother of Megumi, recently visited the United States, where she met President George W Bush and members of Congress. She got heartfelt sympathy and full support for her cause from everyone. Bush said he was very deeply moved, called North Korea a "heartless country" and pledged to work for freedom there.

The US, for its part, has enacted its own North Korea Human Rights Act. Among other things, it specifically requires the US to grant asylum to North Koreans who escape from their country. Washington granted refugee status to six people under the act early last month, the first time it had accepted North Korean refugees.

In mid-December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution criticizing and expressing serious concern over North Korea's human-rights situation, including abductions of foreigners. It was the first time that the assembly had adopted a resolution specifically citing North Korea's human-rights violations.

Japan had hoped to get more moral support from South Korea on the abduction issue when it was learned that Megumi Yokota's husband may have been a South Korean also kidnapped by the North in 1978 when he was 16. Officials came to this conclusion through more DNA tests, this time on Megumi Yokota's daughter and the relatives of her presumed South Korean father Kim Young-nam. They concluded that the Southerner very likely fathered the daughter.

South Korea says 486 of its citizens abducted or detained by the North are still living there. It says North Korea is also holding 542 others taken prisoner during the Korean War. Pyongyang denies holding any prisoners of war and claims the civilians defected voluntarily. But the abduction issue has not had as high a media profile in South Korea as in Japan. Seoul is focused single-mindedly on detente with the North.

The recent findings about the very likely blood relationship between Kim Young-nam and Megumi Yokota's daughter Kim Hae-kyong, 18, have raised hopes in Japan of forging a unified front between Tokyo and Seoul over the abduction issue. In mid-May, Shigeru Yokota, the 73-year-old father of Megumi Yokota, visited Choi Gye-wol, the 78-year-old mother of Kim Young-nam, in Seoul. Later that month, Choi visited the parents of Megumi Yokota - Shigeru and Sakie - in Tokyo and met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe.

But early this month North Korea took an unusual step seen by many in Japan as a bid to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Seoul by appeasing South Korean public opinion over the issue. North Korea announced that the whereabouts of Kim Young-nam has been confirmed, without saying how he got into the country. And citing "humanitarianism", Pyongyang said it has decided to arrange his reunion with his mother, Choi, at the North's Diamond Mountain resort during a round of reunions of families divided by the inter-Korean border this month.

Japan fears that North Korea might be seeking to draw the curtain on the Megumi Yokota case by having Kim Young-nam tell his mother that Megumi had already died, as Pyongyang has claimed. He may even deny that he was the husband of Megumi Yokota.

To be sure, with the enactment of the North Korea Human Rights Act, Japan has got a new diplomatic card to play in dealing with the Stalinist state. But the new law does not specify how progress would be assessed or set a deadline for imposing sanctions, leaving a decision on whether to slap on sanctions to the discretion of the government. "The government will take into consideration international trends comprehensively," the bill says.

Prime Minister Koizumi has been cautious about imposing sanctions against North Korea. There is even speculation that he might visit Pyongyang again before stepping down in September, when his current term as party president - and hence as premier - expires. But if Abe, an anti-North Korea hardliner and the front-runner in the race to succeed Koizumi, takes the helm of government, the possibility of Japan invoking sanctions will grow.

In fact, after the last high-level negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang - held in Beijing in February to discuss nuclear, abduction and normalization issues - failed to make any progress, Japan got tougher. At Abe's behest, the Japanese government ministries and agencies concerned have begun enforcing the existing laws as strictly as possible against North Korea to crack down on illegal exports there, including those made via third countries, and illicit financial transactions such as laundering of profits from drug smuggling.

Abe also has orchestrated increased taxes on facilities owned across the country by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan - or Chosen Soren - a pro-Pyongyang group that acts as North Korea's de facto embassy in the absence of diplomatic ties. In March, police raided the Osaka office of the group as part of investigations into the abduction of one of 16 Japanese citizens certified by the Japanese government to have been abducted by North Korean agents.

This is the slightly updated version of an article originally published on Asia Times.

Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy; his e-mail address is yiu45535@nifty.com.