A ‘Disorderly Crowd’ Having A Voice In Japan’s North Korea Policy?: The Families Of Japanese Citizens Abducted By North Korea

Oana Iancu, ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project) [About | Email]

Volume 23, Issue 2 (Article 5 in 2023). First published in ejcjs on 17 August 2023.


Japanese foreign policy toward North Korea shifted over a relatively short period of time from 1998-2006. North Korea conducted missile tests close to Japan in 1998 and in 2006, but Japan`s reaction was different in each situation. In 1998, although the missile launch was considered regrettable, the Japanese government did not respond with long-term sanctions or coercive accusations, while in 2006, it imposed unilateral sanctions against North Korea.
This paper argues that the Japanese Rescue Movement had an instrumental role in shaping the government’s policy in 2006, and highlights its advocacy activities towards various audiences: national decision-makers and public, mass media, and other countries’ decision makers. It underlines the circumstances in which civil society can successfully contribute to policy-making in Japan.

Keywords: Advocacy, foreign policy, Japanese civil society, abduction, North Korea, Kazokukai, Sukuukai, missile tests


One of Japan’s two major unsolved post-war problems, together with the territorial dispute with Russia, is the normalisation of relations with North Korea. Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has tried to normalise its relations with North Korea; however, there has been significant change in its policy orientation. Two similar events, the launching of ballistic missiles by North Korea in 1998 and 2006, had different responses from Japan. In 1998, although the North’s missile launch was considered deeply regrettable and a very serious situation of concern from the viewpoint of peace and stability in Northeast Asia, Japan’s position was to act in coordination with the United States and the Republic of Korea and not impose sanctions (MOFA, 1998a). In 2006, Japan took the initiative and proposed a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that would impose sanctions on North Korea. The Government of Japan also stated its decision to implement a number of measures against the North on a unilateral basis (MOFA, 2006a). Prime Minister Abe Shinzō stated in his Policy Speech from September 29, 2006, that Japan would seek resolution of the missile issues through the Six Party Talks [1], in coordination with the United States, but there could be no normalisation of relations with North Korea until the abduction issue is resolved (Kantei, 2006). 
The abduction issue (rachi mondai) refers to the kidnapping of Japanese nationals by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s from Japan and Europe. Victims of abductions by North Korea are also from other countries including South Korea, Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Romania, France, Italy, the Netherlands and China (MOFA, 2017).
In Japan, the abduction issue became the main reason for the formation and the activities of the Japanese Rescue Movement [2], as well as a facilitator for the public’s awareness of Japan’s policy toward North Korea.
Although economic sanctions had been imposed in response to the North’s missile test, the abduction issue had also been included among the reasons for the decision, as stated by Chief Cabinet Secretary (CCS) Abe Shinzō during a press conference on July 6, 2006 (Sukuukai, 2006a).
Since 2006, Japan has expanded and extended the sanctions several times. More recently, however, in March 2019, Japan did not sponsor a resolution condemning the North’s human rights abuses, at a UN panel, demonstrating the willingness to engage with the northern state. In April 2019, though, Japan extended the sanctions for two years, maintaining pressure on North Korea for denuclearisation, as well as for the abduction issue. In April 2021, the Suga administration decided to extend the unilateral sanctions on North Korea by two years, to pressure the country in the same regard.
The aim of this paper is twofold: to understand the Japanese government’s decision to impose economic sanctions against North Korea in 2006, and to highlight how the chosen civil society groups participated and contributed to the government’s decision.
Japan’s policies toward North Korea, and specifically the abduction issue, have attracted considerable scholarly interest (Sugita, 2005; Hughes, 2006; Lynn, 2006; Arrington, 2007; Kaseda, 2010; Williams and Mobrand, 2010; Samuels, 2010; Hagström and Hanssen, 2015). One can note the overall tendency of the studies to acknowledge the importance of civil society groups, and to account for their success in shaping the country’s policy toward North Korea by referring to the support of political actors, either due to changes in the power of the executive, or due to ideological beliefs, or revisionist principles. The way in which civil society actors have attempted to influence the government in its position toward the North has not been addressed by the literature. It is, however, important to understand as it contributes to the understanding of the decision-making process and of the role of civil society in it.
The analysis of the Japanese government's decision in the two cases presented above and of the participation of civil society to the decisions provides a valuable understanding of the circumstances in which civil society contributes to policy-making in Japan.
The concept of ‘advocacy’ is particularly useful here for offering a view into the politics of the decision-making process at the domestic level. Defined as ‘the act of pleading for or against a cause, as well as supporting or recommending a position’ (Hopkins, 1992, cited in Jenkins, 2003), advocacy is considered here to include political, social, mass media, and transnational advocacy. As establishing the influence of the actors’ choice of methods on foreign policy is particularly difficult, this paper aims to highlight these methods employed towards various audiences, better to understand the process of advocating their cause politically, socially, to the media, and transnationally.

The 1990s

The end of the Cold War marked the beginning of a new reality in international relations. The Gulf War made Japan aware of its responsibilities and the necessity for reconsidering its position in the international community (MOFA, 1991). As part of its attempt to play a more significant political and military role in international affairs, and especially in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan made efforts to construct more amicable relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). A short period of informal diplomacy was followed by eight rounds of government-level normalisation talks with North Korea, that came to an end in 1992 without significant accomplishment.
After the first North Korean nuclear crisis and the agreement between the United States and North Korea, in 1995, United States, Japan, and South Korea formed the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), with the aim of providing financial support for a light-water reactor project in North Korea, alongside other objectives (Edström, 2012).
Japan also attempted to resume its own dialogue with the North, emphasising, however, the need for North Korea to address the “missing” Japanese citizens issue, a compromise term used instead of “abductions.” The talks between the two countries were not resumed, as they did not agree on bilateral issues, and the relations further degenerated with North Korea’s August 1998 launch of a Taepodong-1 missile, which crossed Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean.
In response, Japan introduced a number of sanctions including the freeze on its KEDO contribution and all food aid to North Korea. Under pressure from the United States and South Korea, on October 21, 1998 Japan announced its resumption of contribution to KEDO, considering it “the most realistic and effective framework for preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons” (MOFA, 1999).
Both the United States and South Korea continued to support KEDO after the missile launch, convinced of its effectiveness to contain the North’s nuclear development, and pressured Japan in the same direction. Thus, both the United States and South Korea had a position of engagement towards the DPRK and pressured Japan in the same direction.
On the domestic scene, in the 1990s, the main actors had favoured an engagement policy towards the North. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) promoted sanctions after the missile test, but returned to an engagement policy, consistent with the long-term objective of the Japanese government. The National Police Agency (NPA) had been criticised for insufficient investigation of the abduction issue, arguably due to the government’s goal of normalising relations with North Korea. The Prime Minister, although with a limited role in foreign policy during the 1990s, was generally pro-engagement and in favour of normalising relations between Japan and the DPRK.
The majority of the politicians preferred engagement of the North in general. Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians had been mostly pro-engagement, until the late 1990s, when a generational change took effect within the party and young, conservative politicians, such as Abe Shinzō and Aso Tarō, not interested in the normalisation of relations with the North, replaced the older generation and started to accumulate power. A shift in the power balance towards a more hardline position with respect to North Korea could be seen. In September 1998, the LDP decided to examine the amendment of the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Control Law (FEFTCL), as well as the enactment of the Law to Prohibit Port Entry to Specific Ships (LPPESS), as, at that moment, there was no legal way to impose sanctions on North Korea independently, and obtaining the cooperation of the United States or other countries was deemed difficult. The Japan Socialist Party (JSP) had been mainly pro-engagement, while the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) comprised various positions. After the missile launch, however, the JSP was not able to promote normalisation anymore due to lack of political strength, whereas the DPJ started to show support for strengthening defence and for sanctions against the North. The Japan Communist Party (JCP) maintained a neutral position, neither of engagement nor containment regarding the North. Consequently, the political context was dominated by politicians who favoured engagement of North Korea, but after August 1998, all expressed frustration and criticism, with a part of the LDP politicians pressuring the Obuchi Cabinet to maintain the established sanctions.
Japanese businesses did not express much interest in the North Korea policy, mainly due to its poor record of paying bills to foreign investors.
Japanese academia expressed various positions. There had been considerable debate regarding the possibility of dialogue with the North, as well as criticism towards the attempts to normalise relations.
With respect to the media and the public opinion, there was not much media coverage of the abduction issue in the 1990s, and more than 50 per cent of the population supported the normalisation of relations between Japan and the North (Asahi Shinbunsha Yoron Chōsa, 1996). The 1998 missile crisis, however, prompted the public to dislike North Korea, and the media to report more, expressing criticism toward the missile test. The position supporting economic sanctions had been mainly promoted by the right-wing media.

Figure 1. Coverage of “North Korea” and “the abduction issue” in major newspapers 1990-1998. Author’s original work based on Nikkei database

Figure 2. Coverage of “North Korea” and “missile” in major newspapers before and after the North Korean missile test (August 31, 1998). Author’s original work based on Nikkei database
Figure 1 shows the media coverage of the abduction issue in relation to North Korea in five major Japanese newspapers: Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri, Sankei, and Nikkei, over the period 1990-1998. As can be noticed, there was no media coverage of the issue in relation to North Korea until 1997. Moreover, there was no increase in the coverage of the issue in 1998.  Unsurprisingly, the most coverage was provided by the Sankei Shinbun, traditionally considered the most right-of-centre newspaper in Japan.
According to a quantitative and a content analysis of the newspaper articles, media did report on North Korea’s missile launch, as can be noticed from Figure 2, expressing considerable criticism. Asahi Shinbun, traditionally left-of-centre among Japanese newspapers, expressed straightforward criticism toward North Korea after the August 1998 missile test.  
As regards the civil society actors, the two organisations representing the actual focus of this paper formed in 1997. However, the families of the abductees had individually attempted to advocate their cause mainly to the police, to certain politicians, and to government officials, as well as to the public and the media, but without considerable success. Certain families received support from various individuals, whether politicians, journalists or academics, who assisted them and further advocated their cause to relevant audiences, while others drew the interest of MOFA, the NPA and the media.
Whereas some of the victims are believed to have been kidnapped precisely because they had no family, and thus not much information is available regarding their cases, there is abundant information regarding other victims’ cases and their families’ struggle for their rescue (Sukuukai, n.d.).
Important roles were played by Hyōmoto Tatsukichi [3], Ishidaka Kenji [4], Abe Masami [5], Satō Katsumi [6], Kojima Harunori [7], Nishimura Shingo [8], Kurosaka Makoto [9] and Abe Shintarō [10], who had advocated the abduction issue to the politicians, as well as to the media and the larger public, attempting to support the families of the abductees in their struggle to rescue their loved ones.
The family of Yokota Megumi received the attention and support of media reporters, such as Ishidaka Kenji, and politicians such as Hyōmoto in the beginning, followed by various other media, as well as political activists, such as Satō Katsumi and Kojima Harunori, and right-wing politicians like Nishimura Shingo. The families of the three young couples kidnapped from the Sea of Japan coast benefitted from the support and assistance of journalists, such as Abe Masami, and politicians, such as Hyōmoto. A slightly different case was the case of Taguchi Yaeko, whose family received the support of MOFA and the NPA in discovering and investigating the abduction, as well as including it in the early talks with North Korea.
An analysis of the families’ actions is not achievable through the lens of the advocacy concept until the formation of the Rescue Movement in 1997, but an emerging advocacy trend can still be observed in the majority of the cases. The actions pointing to an emerging political advocacy trend were centred on reports to the police, letters and petitions with signatures to government officials and politicians, as well as direct visits and established meetings. The emerging social and media advocacy actions were concentrated on sending letters to the various news media, press conferences, as well as petitions with signatures. The families who started and further strengthened the advocacy trend included the Hasuike family, the Masumoto family, Hara Tadaaki’s brother Kōichi, and the Arimotos.
The emergence of the two main organisations comprising the Rescue Movement allows an analysis of their actions based on the advocacy concept. The Rescue Movement came to include Seinen no kai, the Youth Association for the Rescue of the Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, in 1999, and Chōsakai, in 2002, as an organisation cooperating with Sukuukai. The initiative and the organization of the Rescue Movement belonged to Sukuukai, and to a small number of people inside Sukuukai, who had vast knowledge and experience regarding the formation of a movement, as well as campaigning for a certain cause. Several central figures, worth mentioning include Satō Katsumi, Kojima Harunori, and Nishioka Tsutomu.
Satō Katsumi was the director of the Modern Korea Research Institute and Kojima Harunori, the owner of a small dry-goods store in Niigata city. Both Kojima and Satō, as members of the JCP, were involved in the repatriation of Koreans living in Japan to North Korea, believing without any reservation that it was to their best interests. They both changed their views, leaving the Communist Party and becoming concerned and deeply involved in the resolution of the abduction issue (Aoki, 2011). Nishioka Tsutomu was Satō’s disciple, a Korean affairs specialist, who worked as editor-in-chief of the Modern Korea magazine (1990-2002) and became involved in the management of the institute. 
The main goal of the Rescue Movement has been the rescue of the Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea and the contribution to the peace and security of the East Asian region. Certain members of Kazokukai have developed extreme positions with regard to North Korea, mainly by following Satō’s and Nishioka’s views regarding the country and its regime.
The political advocacy activities had targeted MOFA, the Ministry of Justice, the NPA, the Prime Minister and the Kantei, local governors and mayors, politicians from all the political parties, and the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. The methods of advocating their cause politically, in the period 1997-1998, included: petitions, formal and informal meetings, submissions of signatures, appeals, participation in political parties’ meetings, protest documents, visits to various governmental institutions, speeches, and informal talks, all falling within the insider tactics category, hence non-confrontational.  

Figure 3. Political advocacy activities 1997-1998. Author’s original work based on the records of Kazokukai and Sukuukai published by Araki (2002)

The political advocacy activities have yielded certain responses, such as support from local governments, or invitations to LDP Foreign Policy meetings where the views and activities of the Movement were presented. The activities also yielded confirmation of the government’s attention to the abduction issue, as well as confirmation of the tensioned relations between the two countries and the pressure applied by Japan towards the North in the wake of the missile test from August 1998. The Movement achieved the recognition of the abductions as violations of human rights by the Ministry of Justice.
Social advocacy activities targeted mainly the public, with the purpose of raising awareness and support, and, in the period 1997-1998 included: signature-gathering campaigns, public hearings, study meetings, citizens’ gatherings and wider assemblies, lectures and speeches, appeal letters to the public, as well as protest letters to the ones who had a distinct view about the abduction issue from that of the Rescue Movement, and publications, such as news media articles or manuscripts.

Figure 4. Social advocacy activities 1997-1998. Author’s original work based on the records of Kazokukai and Sukuukai published by Araki (2002)
Despite numerous social advocacy activities, the majority of the public supported normalisation of relations between Japan and North Korea in the 1990s, and only the 1998 missile crisis prompted criticism and dislike of the public towards the North.
The media advocacy activities conducted by the Rescue Movement in the period 1997-1998 focused on press conferences, contributions to the news media, appeals and protest letters directed at the media, to raise the interest of the media in the abduction issue. There were few journalists interested in the problem, and notices about press conferences were mainly sent by mail to journalists who had previously contacted the Rescue Movement individually. The abduction cases had been presented quite dramatically to the media during press conferences, the families using descriptive photographs and expressing their pain dramatically in words. Albeit the photographs give a sense of “real” to something otherwise abstract, the media confidence in the abduction issue and the Rescue Movement’s activities remained low during the 1990s. Experienced activists and researchers such as Kojima Harunori and Satō Katsumi contributed to the news media with various articles [11] regarding the abductions and North Korea’s violation of Japan’s national sovereignty and human rights. These publications mainly appeared in right-wing media and remained in the minority during the 1990s.
Figure 5. Media advocacy activities 1997-1998. Author’s original work based on the records of Kazokukai and Sukuukai published by Araki (2002)
The Rescue Movement’s transnational advocacy activities in the 1990s targeted the United States and the United Nations for support, and North Korea for the return of the abducted Japanese citizens. Regarding the strategies and tactics identified by the extant literature as being used by transnational advocacy “networks” when seeking a response outside the state, the Movement relied on the use of convenient information and the search for support from powerful actors, in relation to all the target audiences specified above. They appealed to the US government and people through the media, as well as through written documents and direct visits, and through petitions to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The activities of the Rescue Movement had an indirect impact towards North Korea, whose national media criticised them and referred to the Movement as “low class intrigue” (interview Chairman Chōsakai). In a direct manner, the activities of Kazokukai and Sukuukai targeted the North through a postcard addressed to Kim Jong Il, requesting the release of the kidnapped Japanese nationals.

Figure 6. Transnational advocacy activities 1997-1998. Author’s original work based on the records of Kazokukai and Sukuukai published by Araki (2002)
The formation of the Rescue Movement brought a clear development in the activities conducted by the families of the abductees and the voice of the groups was starting to be heard. The invitation of Kazokukai at the LDP’s foreign policy meeting held in October 1997, or the reply of MOFA’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Takemi Keizo, to Kazokukai’s written appeal for collaboration, constitute evidence in this regard. The Vice Minister  referred to the Rescue Movement as becoming a great force that could move the government, stressing the fact that continuing it was key to succeeding (Araki, 2002). Also, the tactics of the families to appeal to various audiences improved with the help of experienced activists.
To sum up, in the 1990s, the overall position of the domestic actors was one of engagement towards North Korea. The limited opposition to a policy of engagement and to lifting the sanctions imposed against the North after the 1998 missile test came from certain LDP conservative members, and certain DPJ members who supported a strengthened defence position of Japan. The crisis also prompted the media and the public to develop increased criticism and a hostile attitude towards North Korea, nonetheless not sufficient for the Japanese government to maintain the economic sanctions. Prime Minister Obuchi had attempted to use the domestic opposition as an advantage internationally and emphasised the need for imposing punitive measures against North Korea, as well as the inability to cooperate due to domestic opposition. However, he was simultaneously reconfirming support for the Agreed Framework and agreeing to maintain close consultation with the United States and South Korea with regard to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). On the domestic level, the Obuchi administration highlighted the inability of maintaining the KEDO freeze for long, as it would lead to its collapse and further to bigger repercussions for Japan and its national interest. The discourse of the Japanese government changed in the light of the US negotiators’ strategy of underlining the future North Korean threat if the KEDO was not resumed. The US focus on the long-term peace and stability that would result from resuming KEDO, made the Japanese government renounce its request for an apology from North Korea for the missile test carried in August 1998 and lift the freeze on KEDO. Although initially against resuming KEDO, in the end, all Diet members decided to follow the government’s decision. MOFA is believed to have been autonomous in the policy initiative, while domestic opposition is considered insufficient. The international agreement reached was consistent with Japan’s long-term goal of stopping North Korea’s nuclear development as well as engaging it with the international community.

The 2000s

In the 2000s, the position of the main domestic actors had been one of containment, favouring economic sanctions against North Korea. MOFA favoured dialogue as a policy, alternating it with pressure, but its final aim had been maintained: the normalisation of relations with the North. The NPA conducted more thorough investigations regarding the abductions, leading to the Government of Japan recognising fifteen Japanese nationals as victims, in January 2003.
The general position of the Prime Ministers towards North Korea had been one of engagement, pursuing normalisation of relations. The abduction issue, however, was starting to receive attention at the governmental level, starting with Prime Minister Obuchi who met the families of the abductees in March 1999 and promised to take measures for solving the issue. Obuchi also acknowledged for the first time the contribution of the Rescue Movement to changing the Japanese public’s perception regarding the abduction issue and North Korea (Araki, 2002). Nevertheless, Obuchi dismissed the possibility of not pursuing negotiations with the North, aimed at normalising relations between the two countries. With Obuchi’s first acknowledgement of the Movement’s influence on the public, numerous other similar statements were made by governmental officials. In August 2000, the Director General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of MOFA, Makita Kunihiko, recognised the rising public opinion and the government’s impossibility of ignoring the abduction issue (interview Chairman Chôsakai).  Prime Minister Mori also supported negotiations with North Korea and the normalisation of relations between the two countries, emphasising that both the abduction issue and the diplomatic relations needed to be solved simultaneously. Prime Minister Koizumi’s approach toward the North had initially been “dovish,” pursuing negotiations and a normalisation of relations with the North. After the 2002 summit, however, the government’s policy became “no normalisation of relations between Japan and North Korea until North Korea itself resolves the many problems that it has caused: abductions, development of nuclear weapons and missiles, spy boats, narcotics smuggling etc. The resolution of these problems would bring peace, which would lead to greater prosperity for East Asia as a whole” (Kantei, 2002). Prime Minister Koizumi further supported a policy of “dialogue and pressure,” at times encouraging dialogue, while, at times, clearly supporting pressure. The final goal of Koizumi remained, nevertheless, the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea, and although he considered the abduction issue important, he did not prioritise it over the nuclear or the missile issue, and dismissed economic sanctions and a hardline position towards the North. He relied however, on both hardliners, such as Abe Shinzō, and liberals, such as Fukuda Yasuo who supported dialogue, as advisers, and simultaneously pursued coordination of policy with the other participants in the Six Party Talks (SPT).
Politicians started to gain support from the public for supporting a hardline position towards North Korea. Young LDP politicians who favoured containment of North Korea started to organise and replace old politicians with links to North Korea, in power positions. The role of Abe Shinzō, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary and later Chief Cabinet Secretary, was particularly important in pressing for the resolution of the abduction issue and a hardline position towards the North. Abe Shinzō had supported the Rescue Movement since its formation, becoming aware of it in 1988 while a secretary to his father Abe Shintarō, Secretary General of the LDP at the time. DPJ members also started to favour a more hardline position and at the general elections in 2003 even introduced plans for sanctions toward North Korea in their election platforms. Even the JSP started to show support for the families of the abductees. Japanese companies had shown some resistance to sanctions against North Korea in the 2000s, but their opposition had little influence on the government’s policy due to lack of allies. The position of academia continued to be diverse. The media and the public opinion, on the other hand, changed dramatically, particularly after the 2002 summit when the abductions were acknowledged.
The issue had been especially discussed by the right-wing media immediately after the summit, with particular verbal and physical attacks towards the government officials and politicians who pursued normalisation of relations with the North. Certain specialists went so far as to consider the public opinion “abducted” by right-wing media (Wada, 2004), and even Japanese diplomacy “kidnapped” by the abduction issue (Vogel, 2003). The abduction issue was considered an instrument utilised by Sukuukai to manipulate public opinion and restrict free speech. After 2002, all news media promoted the abduction issue with the public, as a way of compensating for the scarcity of coverage and lack of confidence in the issue in the 1990s. After the 2006 North Korean missile launch, not only missile–related criticism could be noticed in the media, but also a connection with the abduction issue and the Rescue Movement advocating its resolution. Opinion polls showed that the abduction issue had been considered of highest importance by the Japanese public in the 2000s, among issues related to North Korea. Opposition to humanitarian aid to North Korea and support for the imposition of economic sanctions increased, with approximately 80 per cent of the Japanese public supporting the government’s decision to impose economic sanctions against the North, in July 2006 (The Japan Times, 2006).
An important role in the domestic context in the 2000s was played by the Rescue Movement, whose uninterrupted advocacy activities increased domestic and international awareness regarding the abduction issue and North Korea’s attitude and regime.
The political advocacy activities of the groups comprising the Movement had been directed at the various ministries, especially at MOFA, the Prime Minister and the Kantei, and the politicians, at the national as well as the local level, both via protests towards the government’s actions and requests for future actions. They included audiences with government officials, collective and individual appeals, demands, submissions of signatures, petitions, statements, declarations, letters, written requests, protest meetings, citizen protests, sit-ins, surveys to election candidates, subsequently made public, lobbying, contributions to the media, participation in Diet meetings, street activities, and informal meetings with ministry officials and politicians. The majority of these activities fall within the insider tactics category, while the citizens’ protests, sit-ins and street activities fall within the outsider tactics category. All activities were completely peaceful and nonviolent.
The families of the abductees and their support group had the assistance of Rachi Giren [12], and further of the new Rachi Giren established in April 2002, as well as the support of the Prefectural Assemblymen Association, a group established in 2000, with the same purpose. Since the early 2000s, the representatives of the Rescue Movement started to have audiences with MOFA officials, including the Foreign Minister, to listen to reports on the development of the North Korea policy, as well as to make their views and suggestions known to the government. The families of several abductees were invited to Committee meetings held by both Houses of the Diet to participate in deliberation talks regarding the abduction issue. Such development brings proof of the impact of the Movement’s actions, as well as the government’s increased effort with regard to the issue. The activities of the Rescue Movement continued and intensified after the First Japan-North Korea Summit in September 2002. The acknowledgement of the abductions increased the Movement’s popularity and attracted much public interest and support, making it comparatively easier for the members to appeal to all their audiences. The main request of the Rescue Movement after Prime Minister Koizumi’s return from Pyongyang in September 2002, was a complete verification of the information provided by North Korea regarding the deaths of several abductees. Moreover, as the Prime Minister continued to support dialogue with North Korea and normalisation of relations between Japan and the North, the Rescue Movement started to request no normalisation of relations before the abduction issue was solved. The extreme positions of Kazokukai’s supporters, such as Satō Katsumi, Shimada Yōichi, and Nishioka Tsutomu, were repeatedly presented to government officials. Such positions included severe criticism of the government’s “weak diplomacy” and requests for the employment of military power. The initiative in the Rescue Movement was, since the beginning, taken by Sukuukai and the principal claim of the Movement was the use of pressure by the government toward North Korea, emphasising the imposition of sanctions as the only way of solving the abduction issue. Alongside the imposition of sanctions, the Movement advocated the enactment and amendment of legislation that would make such actions possible. The FEFTCL and the LPPESS, two pieces of legislation initiated by lawmakers, were adopted in 2004, with support from politicians from both the ruling party and the opposition, making it possible for Japan to impose sanctions on other country independently.
After the Second Japan-North Korea Summit in May 2004, the Rescue Movement felt betrayed by the government and characterised Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to Pyongyang as having “the worst possible result” (Rescue Movement Report 62, Modern Korea October 2004 issue). The Movement, thereafter, intensified its activities, and adopted a slogan that strongly required the imposition of economic sanctions. Another event that strengthened the Movement’s position and increased the public’s confidence in it was North Korea’s provision of Yokota Megumi’s cremated remains, in November 2004. Although there had been considerable controversy regarding the remains, the tests performed by the Japanese government demonstrated that they did not belong to Yokota Megumi, thus pointing to the North’s insincerity and enforcing the Movement’s stance of taking a strong attitude to impose sanctions. The Rescue Movement had also campaigned for the creation of a Special Committee for the Abduction Issue in both Houses of the Diet, and the adoption of a North Korea Human Rights Act, succeeding the adoption of such a law by the United States in September 2004. The Special Committee was established in November 2004, triggering a statement of the Rescue Movement regarding its considerable influence on the matter, while the Act had only been adopted in June 2006, with cooperation from the new Rachi Giren and the politicians from the ruling party.
Following the North’s missile launch in July 2006, the request of the Rescue Movement for the imposition of sanctions against the North had been reinforced, and further extended to the inclusion of the abduction issue among the reasons for the sanctions. Their request had been subsequently granted, although only verbally, by CCS Abe Shinzō, whose role is considered invaluable by the Movement for their political advocacy activities and the progress made with the abduction issue.
Figure 7. Political advocacy activities 1999-2006. Author’s original work based on the Rescue Movement’s Reports published by Modern Korea (2002-2006)
The social advocacy activities organised by the Kazokukai and Sukuukai in the 2000s targeted, as before, the public in general, with the aim of raising awareness about the abduction issue and Japan’s policy toward North Korea. The main means of conducting these activities was through signature-gathering campaigns, demonstrations, propaganda activities and other street activities, gatherings, workshops, conferences, study meetings, lectures and symposiums, and various statements or documents, to appeal to or to protest the ones with different views, as well as manuscripts, and visual media representations. The activities had been organised across the entire country, with considerable support from the Prefectural Assemblymen Association and the Rachi Giren. In the 2000s, the Japanese public was most interested in the abduction issue among all issues related to North Korea, and the opposition to aid and support for economic sanctions considerably increased. There is no doubt that Kim Jong Il’s admission of the abductions, as well as North Korea’s subsequent insincere attitude in treating the issue, contributed to forming the Japanese public’s opinion and views. However, the ones that made the public aware of the problem, constantly reminding it of it and of North Korea’s atrocious regime, were Kazokukai and Sukuukai. In this pursuit, considerable emphasis was laid on the violation of Japan’s national sovereignty and human rights, as well as on the actual issue itself, to which the majority of the population could relate. There was little to almost no disagreement regarding the goal to be reached, namely the rescue of the abductees, a circumstance that contributes to the effectiveness of a movement (Watanabe, 1984).
Figure 8. Social advocacy activities 1999-2006. Author’s original work based on the Rescue Movement’s Reports published by Modern Korea (2002-2006)

Media advocacy activities in the 2000s were centred on, but not limited to, press conferences. In addition, the Movement employed media advocacy through contributions to the news media and letters of protest or appreciation towards various media outlets. The journalists were contacted through individual notices by mail, but after the 2002 summit, when the interest of the journalists from all the news media increased to the utmost limits, the Metropolitan Police Department Press Club became the window for transmitting information about the press conferences organised by the Movement. This press club had been chosen based on the rationale that it could best represent the interests of a movement advocating the criminality of the abduction issue. After September 2002, the Rescue Movement stopped the appeals for media interest, as the abduction issue had already become a matter of national interest (interview Chairman Sukuukai).
The strategies of the media contributed to the Movement’s transmission of information to the public, and simultaneously to the government. Immediately after the 2002 Summit, the abduction issue had been selected for coverage by the media to the detriment of the Pyongyang Declaration, signed on the same day by the representatives of the two countries. In this regard, the media had been attracted by the drama of the abduction issue, a key news value that shapes the “newsworthiness” of events (Greer, 2007). The victims, namely the families of the abductees, had been portrayed as victims of crime, with the help of numerous visual representations, strategy more effective than mere words, for familiarising the audience with the victims. Moreover, as previous research had shown, photographs humanise crime victims, making them “real” and easier to invest in emotionally, and serve to highlight the “evil” of the offender (Doyle, 2003). Most times, media allocate resources to the victims who can be portrayed as ideal (Greer, 2007), an idea reinforced by the present research, as the media had designated considerable time and coverage to Yokota Megumi, the 13-year-old girl, kidnapped by the North in 1977. The attribution of the “ideal victim” status is influenced by demographic characteristics, such as class or gender, and it includes persons who are vulnerable, defenceless, innocent, and worthy of sympathy and compassion (Greer, 2007). Yokota Megumi personified all those characteristics (interview Chairman Chōsakai), and thus became the symbol of the abduction issue, symbol also promoted by the Rescue Movement.
The abduction issue was not only a matter of concern for the families of the victims, but it became a concern for the whole Japanese population, as such crimes could affect the wider society and generate debates, which could change beliefs or attitudes (Innes, 2003, cited in Greer, 2007). The Movement’s activities also focused on criticising the regime in North Korea, activities transmitted by the media and changing people’s perceptions of North Korea and Japan’s policy toward it. Along these lines, as all the abduction cases represented a problem that resonated with the majority of the society, media and implicitly the Rescue Movement received high levels of support from the public.
Figure 9. Media advocacy activities 1999-2006. Author’s original work based on the Rescue Movement’s Reports published by Modern Korea (2002-2006)
The transnational advocacy activities conducted by the Rescue Movement in the 2000s, targeted other non-state actors in South Korea and the People’s Republic of China, other states, such as the United States, South Korea, China, North Korea, as well as the United Nations and the entire international community. The Movement relied on the use of convenient information, employing the majority of the informal methods acknowledged by the literature: telephone, e-mail, fax, newsletters, and pamphlets; on the stories of the abductees’ families, in order to persuade people and determine them to take action; on their ability to gain the support of powerful actors and compel them to stand by their advocated policies; and on consumer boycotts, as tactics through which civil society actors exercise significant power. The representatives of the Movement had organised visits to the US with the purpose of appealing for cooperation in the resolution of the abduction issue, meetings with US government officials in Japan for the same purpose, appeals to the South Korean government, collaboration with the families of the South Korean abductees, appeals to the Chinese embassy in Japan, cooperation with the families of the abductees from Macao, various requests to North Korea, enquiries, as well as visits to the UN, and general appeals to  the entire international community. In most of their attempts the groups had the assistance and support of Rachi Giren and the Prefectural Assemblymen Association. In some cases, the Movement received support from the Japanese government, such as in 2003, for their statement to the UN Human Rights Committee, or in 2005, for the initiative to boycott North Korean clams.
The contribution of the advocacy activities conducted by the Rescue Movement nationally and transnationally cannot be overstated, as North Korea had repeatedly shown concern regarding the Japanese and international public opinion and its being stirred by the Japanese Rescue Movement. One such example was the criticism towards the intention to include the abduction issue into Japanese textbooks, as well as the internationalisation of the abduction issue, expressed by the Central North Korea News in April 2001. Similar criticism was released by the Central North Korea News in September 2001, displaying criticism felt from the Japanese Police and the Japanese Rescue Movement (Araki, 2002).
Figure 10. Transnational advocacy activities 1999-2006. Author’s original work based on the Rescue Movement’s Reports published by Modern Korea (2002-2006)
To sum up, in the 2000s the overall position of the main domestic actors had been one of containment, favouring economic sanctions. In this respect an important role was played by the Rescue Movement, whose uninterrupted advocacy activities increased domestic and international awareness regarding the abduction issue and North Korea’s attitude and regime. In their pursuit, the groups comprising the Movement benefitted from the support of the politicians, whose position had considerably shifted towards containment. The organisation of young conservative politicians and their taking hold of power positions can account for this shift to a high extent. The Rescue Movement benefitted from the support of the media after 2002, in the transmission of its views to the public and simultaneously to the government. Although Prime Minister Koizumi pursued normalisation of relations with North Korea, Japan’s diplomatic choices had decreased, leading to the unilateral imposition of economic sanctions against North Korea, following the latter’s missile test, in July 2006. The international environment and the US and South Korea’s support for an engagement policy had been insufficient to prevent Japan from unilaterally imposing sanctions against the North. Although MOFA continued to support an engagement position in the form of dialogue and negotiations in coordination with the US and South Korea, the ministry’s fading role in foreign policy decision-making constitutes one of the differences when compared with the 1998 case, when MOFA’s support for lifting the sanctions on North Korea made it possible for Japan to coordinate its policy with the US and South Korea.

The 1998 Case vs. The 2006 Case

The shift in the Japanese government’s policy towards North Korea from 1998 to 2006 can be explained with the help of the change in the domestic context. Most domestic actors changed their attitude, from supporting an engagement position in 1998, to supporting a hardline position and the imposition of sanctions towards North Korea in 2006. The advocacy activities of the Rescue Movement after 1998, until 2006, contributed to the formation of the hardline position predominant in the domestic context in 2006, after North Korea’s missile test.
Although the Rescue Movement had not reached its final goal, of rescuing the abducted Japanese citizens from North Korea, its suggested method of accomplishing that goal, namely the imposition of economic sanctions, was reached in 2006, when the Japanese government unilaterally imposed sanctions against the North. The Movement had been successful in one of its objectives, as the groups comprising it had advocated for sanctions since the beginning of 1999. In July 2006, the Japanese government imposed unilateral sanctions on North Korea, despite the Prime Minister’s and MOFA’s preference for dialogue and normalisation of diplomatic relations with the North, and the international coordination of policy with the US and South Korea. Such result was reached as the Prime Minister’s diplomatic choices had decreased with the change in the domestic context. The Rescue Movement’s contribution to such change was considerable. Several factors supported the groups in pursuit of their objectives:

• The support of politicians
• The support of the media and the public
• The internal characteristics of the Rescue Movement
• Other factors: the salience of the abduction issue, no disagreement about the goal of the Rescue Movement – the rescue of the Japanese abducted by North Korea, a weak opposition, the groups’ access to government or advocating a policy already favoured by the government.


The abduction issue received scarce attention from the Japanese government, as well as from the Japanese public in the 1990s, until the emergence of Kazokukai and Sukuukai, despite the determined effort of the abductees’ families to rescue their loved ones. Specific people had key roles in promoting the abduction issue as an issue of national interest and one of utmost importance to the government. Among them were Kojima Harunori and Satō Katsumi, experienced activists with wide experience about campaigning and advocating for a cause. Kojima started to support the Yokota family and further the formation of the Rescue Movement and recommended his old friend Satō to lead the National Association for the Rescue of the Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN). The establishment of NARKN was considered highly necessary for the victims’ families successfully to appeal to the national government and the public. Kojima later observed that the abduction issue was being manipulated by Satō for his own interests and the political claims of the Modern Korea Institute, and expressed regret for having asked him to become the head of Sukuukai (Aoki, 2011, personal communication with Kojima). Both Kojima and Hyōmoto Tatsukichi, who also offered support to the abductees’ families since the beginning, disapproved of the situation and of the fact that Kazokukai were made victims of Sukuukai (Aoki, 2011).
Satō had started to describe the nature of the North Korean regime, its human rights abuses and the suffering of the people, in his writings from the 1980s. Following the end of the Cold War and Japan’s several apologies to its neighbours regarding historical issues, Satō’s criticism increased, starting to refer to an “apology disease” that Japan was suffering from (Morris-Suzuki in Ryang, 2009). On that account, the development of events taking place inside Japan during the 1990s, including the Kōno statement, the establishment of an Asian Women’s Fund, the Murayama Statement etc, was considered unacceptable by Satō, who at the time was leading the Modern Korea Research Institute. His feelings and beliefs were shared by Araki Kazuhiro, a younger political activist who originally belonged to the Democratic Socialist Party (Minshatō), and who joined the Modern Korea Institute in 1993. Led by such feelings and beliefs of strong criticism against the direction taken by Japan during that period, Satō and Araki, and essentially the entire Modern Korea Institute, were advocating against North Korea, its regime, and mostly against Japan’s apologetic image internationally. The proposal of Kojima to Satō, to lead the NARKN, came against this particular background. Satō and the other members of the Modern Korea Institute with extreme right ideological views took the abduction issue on board, and formed the Rescue Movement in 1997. Evidence provided in the form of the advocacy activities of the Rescue Movement, as well as statements from various persons related to the Movement, and Satō himself, allow the interpretation of the facts as Kazokukai and the abduction issue having been used for the own political campaigning of Satō and the Modern Korea Research Institute. Apart from Kojima and Hyōmoto, who expressed regret regarding the fact that Kazokukai were being utilised and were in fact made victims of Sukuukai for the personal interest of Satō and the political claims of the Modern Korea Institute, Hasuike Toru, Secretary General of Kazokukai until 2005, and the brother of Hasuike Kaoru who was abducted by North Korea, criticised Sukuukai for its manipulation of the victims’ families and the prioritisation of its political goal of changing the regime in North Korea over the interests of the abductees and their families, as claimed (Hasuike, 2008).
Satō himself, during an interview with the independent journalist Aoki Osamu in November 2009, admitted to having been involved in the North Korea problem for over 50 years, and although he did not clearly admit to having utilised the abduction issue for reaching personal goals, he characterised Kazokukai as ‘a disorderly crowd’, whose opinions regarding campaigning were not taken into consideration by Sukuukai. He further stressed the fact that Kazokukai were used only as appearance, for the image of the Rescue Movement, while all the decisions were taken by Sukuukai. He argued such behaviour with the families’ lack of strategies and tactics, as well as lack of analysis of the state of affairs, or of powerful individuals to negotiate with the government. Moreover, Satō repeatedly characterised North Korea as a terrorist country from which Japan needed protection and considered that the abduction issue could only be solved with military pressure. He further supported the collapse of the regime in North Korea, arguing that such an event would solve both the North Korean threat and the abduction issue (Aoki, 2011). In consequence, it can be argued that the abduction issue was an instrument, used for Satō’s and the Modern Korea Institute’s own political agenda.
Alongside the Sukuukai’s instrumentalisation of the abduction issue and of Kazokukai, the other instrumentalisation process took place at the governmental level. At first, this stage of the instrumentalisation started with the young, revisionist politicians, who, similarly with Satō, Araki, and the other staff of Modern Korea Institute, found Japan’s apologetic position and development of events in the 1990s, unacceptable. Young, conservative politicians, such as Abe Shinzō, who held revisionist views and favoured a more independent Japan, with a more active and notable international role, focused on the abduction issue and the Rescue Movement advocating the rescue of the abductees from North Korea, in order to promote a more independent Japan and to draw attention to national security. These conservative politicians began to organise together as a group in 1997, and established several organisations with the purpose of creating a more independent Japan and teaching the Japanese public to be proud of its history, not to apologise for it. Abe Shinzō, as well as various other revisionists, had views deeply rooted in Japanese history and Japanese cultural values. They were also part of Rachi Giren, in its advocacy activities towards the government, the public, the media, as well as towards the international community. The new Rachi Giren, established in 2002, continued to assist the Rescue Movement in its pursuit, with growing support and approval from the government. The revisionist politicians supporting the Movement’s cause came to hold power positions and important roles in the government in the 2000s, such as Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary and later Chief Cabinet Secretary, Abe Shinzō, Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Hiranuma Takeo, and later Nakagawa Shōichi, Director General of Japan Defense Agency, Ishiba Shigeru etc. Such politicians, as well as the government, had thus set up to conduct an extensive campaign informing the Japanese public of the abduction issue and magnifying the threat posed by North Korea. Hasuike associated the government’s campaign trucks with “the vehicles of right-wing campaigners,” arguing that the government “manufactured an abnormal nationalism over North Korea” (Fujimoto, 2009). The “abnormal nationalism” had captured the majority of the Japanese public and media, whose support for economic sanctions against North Korea and a hardline position substantially increased. It can, thus, be argued that the revisionist politicians in power positions within the government had utilised the abduction issue as an instrument for creating such “abnormal nationalism” and emphasised the North Korean threat, in order to reach their own political agenda. The abduction issue was used as an important instrument in the diplomacy toward North Korea, and in order to reach the objective of recovering Japanese independence and creating a stronger country on the political and military level.
The one thing that seems certain, however, is that a hard line position towards North Korea, including “no normalisation of relations unless the abduction issue is resolved,” as advocated by the Rescue Movement, will not bring a resolution to the abduction issue, nor peace and stability in the region.


1. A series of multilateral negotiations among China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States with the aim of finding a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s security threat as a result of the nuclear weapons program. Held intermittently since 2003. In 2009, North Korea decided to no longer participate

2. Here, it includes Kazokukai (The Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea) and its support group, Sukuukai (The National Association for the Rescue of the Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea)

3. Secretary of JCP member of the Diet, Hashimoto Atsushi

4. Asahi Broadcasting Osaka reporter

5. Reporter Sankei Shinbun

6. Activist and researcher

7. Owner of a small dry-goods store in Niigata city and former JCP activist

8. Member of the House of Representatives from the New Frontier Party

9. Professor, Osaka University of Economics

10. Former minister of Foreign Affairs and Secretary-General of the LDP

11. Kojima Harunori, Let’s form a circle to support the Rescue of Megumi, Sankei Shinbun, March 13, 1997.

12. Diet members’ League for the Rescue of Japanese allegedly Kidnapped by North Korea, established on April 15, 1997


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About the Author

Oana Iancu holds a BA in Foreign Languages and Literatures from the University of Bucharest, an MA in International Area Studies from the University of Tsukuba, and a PhD from the University of Sheffield in Japanese Studies. She is an Independent Researcher at the Ronin Institute, and a Japan Researcher for ACLED (The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project). Her research focuses on Japanese civil society and Japanese politics.


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