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Sunday, April 13, 2003

NORTH KOREA RETURNEES STILL SILENT

Six months on, access to abductees remains an issue


Staff writer

OSAKA -- On Tuesday, six months will have passed since the five Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in 1978 returned home, an event that most Japanese media rated the No. 1 news story of 2002.

Since then, the abduction issue has gradually receded into the background as the media focuses on issues such as the war in Iraq and North Korea's possible nuclear weapons program. Also leading to reduced coverage were comments from the five -- Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike, Yasushi and Fukie Chimura and Hitomi Soga -- that they plan to live in Japan permanently. Some have even begun to work.

But some observers say that ongoing tensions between the families and the Japanese media may be another factor.

In October, just before the five returned, media sources agreed to refrain from excessive coverage. This was in response to a request from a group comprising family members of the abductees and a nationwide support group.

The agreement was understood by both sides to prohibit individual interviews about the lives and experiences of the five in North Korea.

In late March, the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association and other media industry bodies wrote to the heads of the two groups. They said the situation of the abductees had changed, since they were now living in Japan permanently, and called on the families to allow the five to be interviewed directly.

The families and their supporters issued a joint written reply on April 1 in which they explained that the five were taking impromptu questions at the end of news conferences, after questions submitted in advance had been answered.

But the group turned down the request for individual interviews, saying the situation surrounding the five, who have families in North Korea, is still delicate. They asked for the original agreement to be continued.

Although the families and their supporters said a promise was made in October to respect the returnees' privacy, an official at the newspaper association denied there was ever any such formal agreement.

"The whole purpose of the original arrangement with the families was to prevent a 'media scrum' that would invade the privacy of the abductees and their families," the official said, on condition of anonymity, which he said was an association policy with specific issues. "The association did not view this as a formal agreement that would continue indefinitely."

The adamant refusal to grant individual interviews has led some in the mainstream and tabloid media to allege that the families and support associations are now censoring the five, possibly against their will.

Ryutaro Hirata, secretary general of the supporters' association, strongly denies that charge.

"It is the five returnees who do not want to be individually interviewed. They were in North Korea for 25 years and they, far more than the newspaper association, understand how dangerous it could be for their families if they start granting individual interviews," he said.

Kenichi Asano, a professor of journalism at Doshisha University, said the fundamental problem lies in the fact that the media made any sort of an agreement with the families and the support groups in the first place.

"The newspaper association made the agreement because of public criticism about how the abduction issue had been covered in the past," Asano said, alluding to the lack of in-depth media investigations into allegations that Pyongyang had abducted people. "But it was a mistake -- the family and support associations have no legal authority to make decisions on behalf of the five.

"If the five abductees are asked directly, not through the support group or the family group, for individual interviews and refuse, that's fine. We have to respect their privacy," he said. "But we should let the five, not the support groups or their family members, make that decision independently."



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