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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

The Japanese Connection

Relations with Pyongyang are improving


AFTER MUCH PROTRACTED DALLYING, Japan finally pledged some $27 million in food aid on October 9 to help relieve famine conditions in North Korea. Tokyo also promised additional funds to the International Red Cross and other agencies. Despite intense pressure exerted by many countries, Japan had resisted contributing humanitarian aid to Pyonyang since mid-1996.

Why the long delay? Tokyo was hoping to resolve the so-called "three issues" -- wives, abductions and drugs -- before playing provider. Talks in August between Pyongyang and Tokyo paved the way for Japanese wives married to North Korean nationals to visit their motherland for the first time since they left to live with their husbands. Once the Japanese cabinet approved the aid package, Pyongyang handed over to Tokyo the names of about a dozen Japanese women who would be allowed home visits later this month, with indications that more could follow. Tokyo estimates that about 1,800 Japanese women moved to North Korea between 1959 and 1984 after marrying North Korean men.

The second issue remains more contentious and, from the viewpoint of Japan's sovereignty, more important. Tokyo maintains that North Korean agents have slipped into Japan and kidnapped at least a dozen Japanese citizens since the late 1970s -- and it wants them back. Pyongyang abducted the civilians, suspects Tokyo, to help train spies, teach Japanese and instruct North Koreans on the ways of the outside world.

In some cases, the victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yokota Megumi, a 13-year-old junior high school student, disappeared on her way home from badminton class in 1977. Her whereabouts remained a mystery until 1994, when a North Korean defector admitted that an agent kidnapped the girl because she saw him fleeing after a covert operation. The third obstacle has to do with refusals by the North Koreans to dispel Japanese suspicions that they are behind a ring smuggling stimulant drugs into the country.

While these hurdles have not disappeared, relations between the two neighbors are warming, albeit slowly and unevenly. North Korea is keen to snuggle up to Japan in the hope that Tokyo will pitch in and help rebuild its economy. Hwang Jang Yop, the high-ranking North Korean who defected to the South in February, says Kim Jong ll's ultimate aim is to squeeze $10 billion from Tokyo as compensation for Japan's annexation of the country from 1910 to 1945. "North Korea is seriously pushing to fix a date to relaunch formal talks," says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official, "but we're not fully ready." Readier than before, though.

-- By Peter Morgan and Murakami Mutsuko / Tokyo


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