Obama meets with relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea

April 24, 2014

TOKYO -- President Obama met Thursday with three relatives of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korea, a White House official confirmed, a move that underscored growing international concern over how to handle that regime’s human rights abuses.

The President “was moved by their tragic experiences and reaffirmed our commitment to work with Japan to address North Korea's deplorable treatment of its own people and resolve the issue of abductees,” according to the official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss a private meeting.

Sakie Yokota, the mother of a women who was kidnapped by North Koreans in 1977 as she was headed home from badminton practice, was one of the meeting’s attendees. The case of her daughter, Megumi — one of 13 Japanese citizens the North Korean government has acknowledged abducting in the 1970s and 1980s -- has been a source of friction between the two countries for years.

The session, which took place after Obama held a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, highlights a looming policy question facing not just Japan but the United States and South Korea: how hard to press the U.N. Security Council to refer North Korea’s human rights practices to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague.

While it is clear China will veto such a move, human rights advocates — as well as some government officials — have argued the only way to ensure North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is held accountable is by establishing a standing body that will collect evidence and preserve it. A U.N. commission charged with investigating North Korea’s human rights record recently released its findings, detailing widespread abuses by the totalitarian regime.

Abe placed the item on the agenda for Thursday’s bilateral meeting between the two leaders, according to individuals who asked not to be identified in order to speak about internal government deliberations.

In Thursday’s press conference, Abe said he plans to continue pressing for a “resolution of the abduction issue, and the president expressed his support.”

The North Korean government, which returned five of its abductees to Japan, has said Megumi Yokota committed suicide. But both her mother, who has emerged as a powerful public advocate, and many Japanese citizens do not accept that explanation. President George W. Bush met with Sakie Yokota  in Washington eight years ago.

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Obama and other world leaders need to keep pushing for the establishment of a commission to investigate North Korea’s treatment of both its citizens and those from other countries.

“That will serve as a practical deterrent for some actors from pursuing the worst abuses,” he said, adding that while no one expects the ICC to establish a tribunal immediately, “The stage needs to be set for a potential resolution at some future point.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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