Japan and South Korea take different approaches to North Korean kidnap victims

Megumi Yokota symbolises Tokyo's effort to bring back nationals taken by North Korea, yet her husband from South Korea is forgotten

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 July, 2014, 11:30pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 6:44pm

Kim Young-nam was a teenager living on the coast of South Korea when he disappeared in 1978, only to turn up in North Korea. There, he met and married Megumi Yokota, a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from school a year earlier.

They lived together and had a daughter, but the relationship ended when Yokota committed suicide, according to North Korean officials. Japan has not accepted the version of her fate. Kim was last heard of living in North Korea.

But the contrast in how they are remembered in their home countries is stark.

It is so hard for us. There is nothing we can do, the victims, nothing

More than 35 years after her kidnapping, Yokota has become a symbol of Japan's all-out effort to bring back at least a dozen of its citizens believed to be held by the North.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reopened dialogue with isolated North Korea and offered to ease sanctions in return for answers on the abductees, which he has made a signature issue of his term in office. The two sides held talks on Tuesday in Beijing.

But Kim, one of more than 500 South Korean civilians thought to have been abducted and held in the North, is all but forgotten.

"Prime Minister Abe ... obviously pushed for much more, and it begs the question: what is our government doing for those 500 people?" his sister, Kim Young-ja, 56, said in an interview on Wednesday.

"It is so hard for us. There is nothing we can do, the victims, nothing," she said through tears.

Yokota is one of 13 Japanese that North Korea admitted in 2002 had been kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to help train spies. Five of them returned to Japan, while Pyongyang has said that eight of them are dead, including Yokota.

But Japan has identified 17 citizens it says were abducted. It also wants better proof of the fate of the eight said to be dead, as well as other missing persons who may also have been kidnapped. While Abe has made the plight of the Japanese citizens taken by North Korea a personal crusade, the South Korean government has been reluctant to push Pyongyang on the topic.

Many of the South Korean abductees were part of programmes to help train spies on culture and dialect, according to North Korean defectors who have spoken of taking part in it.

Critics say the South Korean government had stigmatised the families of the abductees, painting them as sympathisers of the North.

Many of the families of the missing are poor or working-class people in rural areas with little means to plead their cases, some of the families have said.

"In Japan, the government comes looking for you when you're an abductee's family," said Choi Sung-yong, who heads the Abductees' Family Union based in Seoul.

"We don't expect our government to come to us, but over here, it's practically impossible for a victim's family to see a government official," he said.

There was no immediate plan to approach North Korea again on the issue of its nationals abducted in the wake of the renewed talks between the North and Japan, said an official at South Korea's Unification Ministry, which handles ties with Pyongyang. "This government will continue to try to bring back the abductees on humanitarian grounds," the official said.

"We will talk to North Korea whenever there is a chance to resolve the abduction issue."

The two Koreas are technically still at war more than six decades after a truce suspended the fighting in the 1950-53 Korean war.

In March, Yokota's parents met their 28-year-old North Korean granddaughter, Kim Eun- gyong, as well as Kim Young-nam in Ulan Bator, the Mongolian capital. But hope is fading that Kim Young-ja and her brother will be reunited again.