WHEN NORTH KOREAN leader Kim Jong-il admitted to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last month that Pyongyang, despite years of vociferous denials, had indeed kidnapped about a dozen Japanese nationals, he was taking a calculated gamble.
No doubt, Mr Kim knew that there would be some adverse publicity as a result, but he also knew that he had to bite the bullet because Japan had made it clear the kidnapping issue had to be resolved first before the two countries could move towards diplomatic normalisation.
However, he may not have reckoned on a tidal wave of anti-North Korean sentiment in Japan. News of the kidnappings, plus the fact that most of the kidnap victims are dead, has infuriated the Japanese public. Moreover, the North Koreans say that the Japanese graves have been washed away by floods, and so it is not even possible to send their remains home for burial or to run DNA tests to verify their identities.
In interviews conducted in North Korea by Japanese diplomats, several of the survivors have described how they were seized in Japan, tied up and stuffed in bags before being taken away in ships to North Korea.
The Japanese Defence Minister has called North Korea a 'fearful state'.
The scheduled return to Japan today of the five kidnap victims who survive is likely to fuel such feelings, as additional details of the kidnappings and perhaps of the real causes of their compatriots' death are disclosed.
However, the returning Japanese may be reluctant to tell the whole story because North Korea has insisted that their North Korean spouses and children remain behind, virtually as hostages. Moreover, the Japanese themselves will have to return to North Korea after family reunions of no more than a week or two.
In fact, because of North Korea's admission, there is now less support within Japan for normalisation talks than before. A survey by the Asahi Shimbun shows that about 88 per cent of voters doubt the veracity of North Korea's account of the fate of the abducted Japanese and the number of those who support normalisation talks has dropped from 58 per cent the day after Mr Koizumi's visit to Pyongyang to 44 per cent two weeks later. Such talks have now been scheduled for October 29 in Kuala Lumpur.
Even North Koreans in Japan who had served as Pyongyang's propagandists now have doubts about the regime. A pro-Pyongyang newspaper, the People's Korea, which is affiliated to the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, has apologised to its readers for having carried articles characterising Japan's charges that North Korean agents had abducted Japanese as 'groundless' and 'fabricated'.
'Kim Jong-il has admitted that kidnappings occurred, and the contents and tone of our past coverage turned out to be false,' the statement said. 'We deeply regret any trouble we may have caused our readers. We took reports from our mother country at their face value, and our biased stories - including our analysis - were unworthy of journalists.'
Japan's success in getting North Korea to admit to the kidnappings has caused many in South Korea to excoriate their own government for not making similarly tough demands on North Korea. Hundreds of South Koreans are estimated to have been kidnapped by North Koreans, but the government of President Kim Dae-jung has apparently not made this an issue in discussions with the North.
In Seoul, presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang of the opposition Grand National Party has demanded that North Korea apologise for having abducted South Korean citizens and engaging in terrorist acts against the South.
'Our government's low-profile handling of the cases is a striking contrast to that of Japan, which has kept broaching the issue to obtain a confession and apology from North Korea for kidnapping its nationals,' Mr Lee has said. He promised that, if elected, he would press North Korea on this and other issues, including the bombing of a Korean Airlines passenger jet in 1987, in which 115 people were killed.
If North Korea is serious about repudiating its lawless past and turning over a new leaf in order to join the international community, it will have to confront issues raised not just by Japan and the United States but by South Korea as well. True, acknowledgement of heinous deeds in the past will give rise to hostility and revulsion abroad, but this is a phase that North Korea must go through. There is no other way.