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Saturday, Aug. 23, 2003

Pawns for Tokyo's hardliners

Japan seems bound forever to want to embark on quixotic foreign-policy campaigns. Yesterday it was Tokyo's bizarre Northern Territories demands against Moscow. Today it is its equally bizarre abductee demands against Pyongyang.

Once again Tokyo has resolved to be nebarizuyoi -- relentless and persistent in seeking to reach its goals. Once again it is trying to recruit the rest of the world to support its strange objectives. And once again it seems doomed to do little more than create a fruitless deadlock in relations with an neighboring country.

Much of the blame falls on the way Japan's hardliners seem able so easily to hijack foreign-policy issues. In 1945, Moscow seized the Japanese-occupied Kuril islands to the northeast of Hokkaido. Its behavior was not entirely evil since it once owned most of the islands anyway, and had U.S. wartime approval to seize the rest.

Then during the 1950s, whenever a conciliatory Moscow looked like agreeing to Tokyo's initial claim for a return of two of the islands -- Shikotan and the Habomai islets -- the hardliners immediately escalated the claim to include two more former Japanese islands -- Etorufu and Kunashiri. This, despite the fact that Japan had formally renounced all right, claim and title to those two islands in its 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with the U.S. and other allied powers.

The result has been a 50-year deadlock in relations with Moscow. The few brave realists and progressives who suggest Japan go back to its the original two-territory solution are immediately condemned as opposing the will of the kokumin (the national people) -- a much-used and abused term with overtones to the fascistic concept of kokutai, or national polity, used to justify prewar policies.

We now see a very similar situation over the so-called abductee issue with North Korea. During its 1960-70s phase of communist hysteria, Pyongyang abducted a number of Japanese citizens. No doubt Pyongyang would claim that its behavior was not entirely evil -- that while it (North Korea) abducted a few Japanese to become translators and interpreters, pre-1945 Japan abducted or conscripted hundreds of thousands of Koreans to become slave laborers and sex slaves.

It might also note that while North Korea has now apologized for what it did, returned five of the abductees and made some efforts to account for others, Tokyo continues to refuse to apologize properly for its pre-1945 behavior, or even to provide full information about the many who died or were killed in Japan.

Pyongyang has also said, and Tokyo initially agreed, that the former abductees could return to North Korea to collect their five children and take them to Japan. Yet somehow Japan's hardliners have been able to take this conciliatory gesture, and turn it into a reason for yet another sterile confrontation. The former abductees were told not to go back to North Korea to collect their children. Instead, North Korea would have to send the children "back" to Japan -- "back" despite the fact the children were born in North Korea and have never been to Japan. Then somewhere along the line the number was escalated to eight. Now some demand that North Korea return or account for an alleged 100 Japanese abducted over the years.

Meanwhile, we are told constantly that all this is the wish of the kokumin. So far I have yet to hear anyone willing to query this strange attempt to turn black into white. Pyongyang now insists the issue is kaiketsuzumi -- finally resolved, a term that Moscow had to use constantly to answer Tokyo's Northern Territories demands.

And as with the Northern Territories dispute, we now see Tokyo's extraordinary efforts to tie its abductee demands into overall Western policy toward the other side. Japan may have finally stopped insisting that Western governments join it in forcing territorial concessions from Moscow as a condition for Moscow to be allowed to have improved relations with the West -- an insistence once famously described as "curious and naive" in a confidential Tokyo British Embassy memo.

But Japan is trying hard to persuade other governments that its curious and naive abductee demands are totally justified, and should be included in the package of nuclear demands that the United States wants to impose on Pyongyang. Fortunately, most are politely suggesting that Tokyo go off and solve its problems by itself, in direct talks with Pyongyang.

A puzzling aspect of the abductee children issue is the position of the parents. Tokyo has not only arbitrarily decreed that the parents cannot go to Pyongyang to meet their progeny; it is even trying to prevent informal contacts with the children. TV crews and NGO personnel who have met and reported on the condition of the children are condemned for acting as Pyongyang tools.

Why, one asks, do the parents go along with all this nonsense, even though it could mean they may not get to see their children for a very long time, if ever?

My own reading is that the parents have known from the beginning that their non-Japanese-speaking children, born and raised in Pyongyang's intense anti-Japanese indoctrination and enjoying semi-elite living conditions, have had little desire to go to Japan. So Tokyo was able easily to convince them (the parents) that rather than make a fruitless and embarrassing trip back to Pyongyang to regain their children, it would be easier if they relied on the government to pressure Pyongyang into forcibly sending the children to Japan.

One can see a human dimension in Tokyo's position. Anger over North Korean agents once sneaking into Japan to abduct Japanese citizens is not unreasonable, even if it does involve much amnesia about Japan's own past behavior.

But among the hardliners, what we see is not anger. Rather, it is a coldly calculated attempt to use the abductee issue to stall all moves for improved relations with North Korea, and to drag the rest of the world into an ugly confrontation with the North Korean regime.

Some even talk happily of having to use military force to resolve the issue. Should the world go along with yet another contrived effort by Tokyo hardliners to create yet another "made in Japan" confrontation? Common sense says no.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and head of the Research Japan Office. A translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net

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