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Chasing Ghosts

Why would a senior Japanese aide make an unannounced visit to North Korea?

Isao Iijima, a special advisor close to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, is in North Korea talking with government officials. The interesting thing, however, is that nobody knows why.

While Japan has refused to even acknowledge that Iijima landed in Pyongyang (he was photographed and shown on North Korean television), speculation is growing that it is re-starting talks about the abduction of Japanese civilians over 30 years ago. Iijima is remembered for his role in negotiating the release of some of the abductees in 2002.

Indeed, addressing a parliamentary committee on Wednesday, Abe said that Japan’s “fundamental objective is to resolve the abduction issue, including the return of all abductees, revelation of the truth and the handover of the perpetrator to Japan.”

The Japanese government officially recognises 17 abductions, and in 2002, the North Koreans admitted to 13 cases. Five victims and their families have been returned. Their stories read rather like a cheap thriller–stolen from the streets and shipped off to North Korea to teach spies how to blend in. But to the individuals themselves, and their families, the events have been nothing short of traumatic.

North Korea insists that the eight abductees who were not returned died from a range of unnatural causes. Japan does not accept this without proof and continues to assume that the other abductees are alive. Activist groups, such as the Abductions of Japanese Citizens by North Korea, are suspicious not just of the unnatural deaths (such as heart attacks which allegedly killed a couple in their twenties) but also of the lack of bodies and official documentation.

If Japan is able to make progress on this issue, it may set a precedent for an unknown number of other victims of abduction by North Korea, from as many as 12 countries, including the US.

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