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Sunday, Nov. 3, 2002


Abductees watch fate unfold through TV

Fuji TV, the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun received unanimous disapprobation for their Oct. 25 interview with Kim Hye Gyong, the 15-year-old daughter of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977 at the age of 13 and is presumed dead. The three media companies apologized, implying that the lack of discretion they displayed should be blamed on their zeal in trying to "uncover evidence" that the Japanese public demanded.

What "evidence" they hoped to uncover isn't clear, since most of the questions were of a personal nature. Yokota's mother, Sakie, reportedly left the room when she and her husband were shown a tape of the interview prior to its broadcast. She was deeply offended by the questions, which clearly were designed to extract a strong reaction from the teenager. ("Do you know what the word 'abduction' means?") Since the girl shed copious tears, they seem to have succeeded.

Fuji TV must shoulder the bulk of the blame. The network aired the interview as a scoop, a breaking news story, albeit one paid for by commercials and augmented by syrupy, manipulative background music. Anchorperson Yuko Ando repeatedly prompted the Yokotas, who were in the studio, for their reaction. "She looks so intelligent," the seasoned journalist cooed, "I'm sure you can't help but adore her."

The broadcast neatly summarized the general tone of the coverage of the five abductees since they returned to Japan last month. If ever there was a matter of national security that's been dictated by public opinion, this is it.

Take the reaction to the interview itself. It's divided neatly into two distinct camps of outrage. One camp feels that the Japanese press was merely exploiting the naive Kim for their own PR gain. The other camp believes that the girl had been coached by her government, and that the tears were meant to soften anti-Pyongyang feelings. In either case, the ultimate goal was perceived as an impact on public opinion in Japan.

This development would be merely curious if the Japanese government were acting like a real government. On Oct. 24, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda announced that the five abductees would remain in Japan. According to Tamotsu Chimura, the father of one of the abductees, this came as news to his son, who heard about it first when he saw the news on TV. Then, North Korea set up the interview with Kim, selecting as her interlocutors the two more liberal Japanese dailies and Japan's least rigorous TV news department.

If North Korea was really trying to manipulate public opinion through the Japanese media (not surprising for a country built on lies), it was getting indirect support from the Japanese government, who never had a policy about the abductions until a month or so ago. Fukuda said that the reason the government has decided to keep the abductees in Japan is that their families want them to stay.

By deferring this decision to the will of the families at this late date, the government further diluted its diplomatic authority. That's because the issue has not been characterized by legal arguments but rather by jo (emotional attachment). It's been the families of the abductees who've controlled the debate, not the government. The families formed a group in 1997 because they were frustrated at the government's lack of initiative in locating their loved ones. So they decided to work directly with the media in shaping public opinion.

The media did their job, perhaps too well. For the past month, pundits have laid out the diplomatic line, saying that there can be no discussion of normalization between the two countries until the abductees' situation itself is normalized, meaning they are settled permanently in Japan.

Those with a more emotional take on the issue say that the abductees and their families in North Korea should decide themselves what they want to do. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of North Korea understands that free will is practically nonexistent there. The abductees themselves have been vague about what they want, obviously because they don't want to offend either their relatives in Japan or the authorities in North Korea.

What makes this situation unique is that these five people get to watch all of Japan debate their fate on TV, thus allowing them to absorb the enormity of their dilemma without really being involved.

During the press conference on the day they arrived, it was clear that their statements were directed at Pyongyang and not at the Japanese media, assuring their superiors that they knew their place. Now, they seem relieved that the Japanese government has taken the matter out of their hands.

Kim Jong Il also understands the value of jo. He decided the best way to control the Japanese leftists who defected to North Korea in 1970 was to marry them off and encourage them to have kids. He alledgely wanted Kim Hye Gyong to lure her grandparents to Pyongyang so he could show them all hugging and crying when they met. Everyone would then calm down and normalization could proceed. The Yokotas didn't fall for it.

Things remain up in the air following the failed talks in Kuala Lumpur this week. The only certainty is that the families are still in charge. Through the Japanese media, they have related their demands directly to Pyongyang, and through the same media, Pyongyang has attempted to sway the Japanese public. Like the abductees themselves, the Japanese government gets to sit on the side and watch.

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