By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 13, 2008
TOKYO, Oct. 12 -- A day after the Bush administration removed North Korea from its terrorism blacklist, the country announced that it would resume tearing down its main nuclear plant, and South Korea welcomed the move as a step toward ending its next-door neighbor's nuclear program.
But in nearby Japan -- where North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens is a festering national sore that politicians dare not neglect -- the decision to take the country off the list of state sponsors of terrorism was condemned by family members of the abductees. These relatives are well-known and much-honored in Japan, and their opinions have been a powerful force in crafting Japan's hard-nosed policy toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
"I think it is an act of betrayal," said Teruaki Masumoto, a brother of one of the eight Japanese who were stolen away by North Korean agents in the 1970s and '80s and who the Japanese government says are still alive in North Korea. Masumoto is secretary general of the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.
"Why did the United States remove North Korea from the list when it is clear to anyone's eyes that the North is a terrorism-assisting country?" asked Sakie Yokota, 72, whose daughter, Megumi Yokota, was 13 when she was kidnapped nearly 31 years ago and is by far the most famous of the abductees.
Struggling to explain the emotional resonance of the abductee issue for the Japanese people, a Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo earlier this year compared Megumi Yokota to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist who made the world aware of the network of Soviet prisons known as the gulag.
In Washington on Saturday, Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa told reporters that the U.S. decision was "extremely regrettable." He said that "abductions amount to terrorist acts."
For more than 18 months, as the Bush administration has made a seismic shift from prickly denunciation of North Korea toward flexible diplomacy, the Japanese government has been worried that its interests in getting information about the abductees would be shunted aside, as the United States single-mindedly pursued denuclearization.
North Korea has infuriated Japan in recent years by saying that all the abductees are dead. It supplied death documents that the Japanese government said are forgeries. Japanese officials say DNA tests have shown that cremated bones sent to Japan from North Korea were not the remains of the abductees. "How can you trust a government that sends you phony bones?" a government official in Tokyo said last year.
President Bush, who met with Megumi Yokota's mother two years ago, called Prime Minister Taro Aso on Saturday evening to explain the decision. Japanese media reported that the call came only about 30 minutes before the State Department announced the removal.
According to the Japanese government, Bush said: "I understand the Japanese people have strong concerns and anxiety over the [abduction] issue. I would like to convey my deep sympathy to the families of the abductees."
The prime minister on Sunday played down any negative consequences of the U.S. move, telling reporters that "it does not mean a loss of leverage" for Tokyo in discussions with North Korea about the abductions.
But Japanese officials have privately disagreed with that assessment.
Japan recently renewed trade sanctions against North Korea. Although the United States and many other countries supply large amounts of food aid to the North, where crop failure and hunger are chronic problems, Japan does not. Japan cut off all aid to North Korea in 2004, when it discovered the "phony bones."
In August, North Korea backed out of negotiations with Japan aimed at resolving the abduction issue.
In Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday that work to disable the Yongbyon nuclear plant would resume, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea, which stunned the word by testing a small nuclear device in 2006, agreed last year to disable the plant as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal. This summer, the country turned over documents detailing some of its nuclear programs, and Bush, in response, said he would take it off the U.S. terrorism list -- if the full extent of North Korean nuclear activities could be verified by outside inspectors.
But for months North Korea balked at verification, and the Bush administration refused to budge on the list.
North Korea then took steps to begin rebuilding the Yongbyon plant. It also barred inspectors from the plant and appeared to prepare for another nuclear test.
Three days of negotiations between the North and Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill in Pyongyang this month led to a compromise. U.S. officials said Saturday that the North had bent on potential access to its facilities and on permission for inspectors to take environmental samples, as well as to allow Japan and South Korea to be part of the inspection process.
In the statement Sunday, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said: "We welcome the U.S. which has honored its commitment to delist [North Korea] as 'a state sponsor of terrorism.' "
The Foreign Ministry said it will again allow inspections by the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency at Yongbyon.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.