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Sunday, Sept. 28, 2003

MEDIA MIX

NORTH KOREAN ABDUCTIONS

Dancing in the dark, but who's calling the tune?


Ever since the five Japanese who were kidnapped by North Korea in the late '70s returned to Japan a little less than a year ago, the media, the government, the abductees' families and supporters, and the abductees themselves have been performing an elaborate and awkward dance.

Everyone says they want the same things, namely, that the families of the five abductees be allowed to leave North Korea and that the communist state account for all the Japanese they abducted. However, each party has other agendas that complicate these shared ones. Separating them has been a difficult and delicate task.

To mark the first anniversary of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's summit with Kim Jong Il in September 2002, when the North Korean leader admitted to the kidnappings, the major TV networks and NHK have been broadcasting special programs that summarize the issue. Very little of the information has been new, but it's been concise and each station has presented a different angle.

Fuji TV focused on the three men (two reporters and a politician's secretary) who first tried to bring the matter to the attention of the public through the media, one as early as 1980. Combining dramatizations using well-known actors and interviews with people who were involved, the special showed how these three men, working independently, came to similar conclusions. Encouraged by their findings, the families of the missing Japanese formed an alliance in 1997 to petition the government for answers and prod the media into asking questions.

Neither responded until North Korea's Kim himself confirmed the families' suspicions last year, and the most impressive aspect of the special was the suggestion that once these three men started uncovering evidence of kidnappings, their superiors quashed their investigations, thus implying that the authorities didn't want the matter discussed.

This conspiracy theory was lent weight by TV Asahi's special, which centered on the activities of the Japanese leftists who in 1970 hijacked a JAL airliner to Pyongyang. Megumi Yao, a Japanese woman who later went to North Korea and married one of the hijackers, has since returned to Japan. She has explained how the group kidnapped Japanese travelers in Europe in order to swell their ranks. On the show, she apologized in person to the parents of Keiko Arimoto, a language student who was fooled into traveling to North Korea, where she is believed to have died. These activities were monitored by law enforcement organizations in Europe as they occurred, and surely the Japanese authorities were aware of them.

Much of the mystery surrounding North Korea's intentions and methods can be cleared up by the returned abductees themselves, but they remain close-mouthed about their ordeal because their loved ones are still in North Korea.

Nippon TV broadcast a live studio interview with Toru Hasuike, the older brother of returned abductee Kaoru Hasuike, and one of Kaoru's best friends. The two men were circumspect about their private conversations with Kaoru, and the producers set up a "hotline" to Kaoru's house so that he could "clarify" anything they said, but the phone never rang.

Taken together, the specials framed the issue in a historical context that helped explain some of the tragedy's more baffling aspects.

For instance, what use did North Korea have for Japanese bar hostesses and junior high school students? North Korea needed Japanese identities for their spies so that they could enter South Korea. They looked for people with no families or debts, people who wouldn't be missed. But as time went on they kidnapped just anyone. The scheme became self-justifying and self-perpetuating. If the Japanese government suspected something, they were hesitant to investigate the association that represented North Korean residents of Japan, because Japan's colonial rule was still a sensitive subject. And in the 1970s the totalitarian nature of Pyongyang was not as widely recognized as it is today. People were more worried about the repressive Park Chung Hee regime of South Korea and the murderous KCIA.

Unable to get what they really wanted -- frank statements from the five abductees about their lives in North Korea -- the networks opted for provocative reports that took advantage of the families' willingness to air their grievances (with the government, with the media, with one another) and zeroed in on easy targets (the Japan Communist Party condemned Fuji TV for saying it fired the party secretary because of his investigation into the kidnappings).

The networks probably resent NHK, whose own special got closer to the abductees than they did. NHK's report focused on how the five are coping with lives that have been permanently shattered. Using home videos shot by family and friends, NHK showed the abductees approaching the subject of their abduction without actually discussing it outright.

No matter how they are portrayed elsewhere in the media, NHK showed they are not a unified front. Kaoru Hasuike is adamant about not "showing any weakness on TV," implying that such displays only play into the hands of Kim Jong Il. And yet he doesn't like it when the families equate his kidnapping with "terrorism." Yasushi Chimura laments the fact that he doesn't have a place in Japanese society. Hitomi Soga's preternatural sadness is revealed as the manifestation of a frustrated desire to be with her family, even if it means going back to North Korea. She seems to be as much of a prisoner now as she was when she was kidnapped. The dance continues.



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