By Cory Evans
All Members of Parliament in Japan wear small gold lapel pins to signify their office. The blue ribbon pin is larger and of less obvious purpose. Especially for the Prime Minister, though, wearing the pin has become ubiquitous.
The blue lapel pin represents hope for the safe return of the dozens of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. You could certainly be forgiven if you haven’t heard of these citizens’ plight. It’s a little-told story, yet it is critical for understanding contemporary Japanese attitudes toward North Korea.
During the 1970s and 80s, many Japanese citizens disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Several were teenage girls, taken from near their homes on the coastline of the Sea of Japan.
Japan brought the issue up with North Korea repeatedly but the North always denied it. Then, in 2002, Kim Jong-Il unexpectedly admitted to the abductions.
Several family members were returned in 2004 and North Korea promised a full investigation. Later in 2004, North Korea announced that their investigation had revealed that all the remaining abductees had passed away.
Japan greeted this news with understandable scepticism. So, North Korea returned what they claimed were the cremated remains of two of Japan’s missing persons.
It appears that in 2004 North Korea did not have access to DNA testing. Japan, of course, did. Rather than prematurely raise the hopes of the victim’s families, Japan ran DNA scans on the “remains”.
It turns out that the cremated ashes of the “victims” were not, in fact, actually their ashes at all. This, apparently, was some sort of cruel joke by Kim Jong-Il.
Japanese people were shocked, outraged and appalled by these events. To this day dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Japanese citizens remain unaccounted for, abducted by North Korea for espionage or worse.
One of the core duties of any country is to protect her citizens from assaults on their life and liberty by hostile forces abroad. For many countries, North Korea’s behaviour would have provoked an immediate military response.
But Japan is unique. Japan is barred from fielding military forces by her 1947 Constitution. She is one of the world’s only pacifist countries.
Instead, the United States is responsible for Japan’s defence, as required by the 1951 Security Treaty Between Japan and the United States. The United States could respond to the North Korean abductions with force, of course, but not without triggering an artillery counterattack on Seoul.
The United States would never tolerate its own citizens’ abduction, but risking the lives of tens of thousands in Seoul is hard to justify in retaliation for several hundred tragic cases.
Of course, the United States raised diplomatic pressure on North Korea and has encouraged Japan to revise her Constitution, aware of the challenges of her current security position presents. These actions have certainly been appreciated, but they have not secured the return of Japan’s abducted citizens.
In tribute to them, and in prayer, the Prime Minister and many others choose to wear blue lapel pins. They are a symbol of hope and a promise to the victims’ families and loved ones.
Japanese politics has been riven recently by debates over revising the Constitution. With controversy swirling, some have criticized the blue pins as merely political gestures. This commentary, without context, has filtered into some American reporting on contemporary Japanese politics.
This reporting infuriates and insults the politicians who do wear blue pins. I spoke recently with a senior Member of Parliament; he could not have been more adamant in his feelings, saying to me: “This is a core issue of the safety of our people. We hope and work for [their return] every day.”
Managing the United States diplomatic commitments in East Asia is challenging for every Administration. As the White House works to formulate policy, and as the American people evaluate those efforts, it is important to understand the dynamics and motivations of our allies and partners.
To his credit, President Trump addressed the abduction issue in his remarks last September at the UN General Assembly. Still, though, more attention is needed if Americans are to properly understand this issue.
The history of these abductions shapes the Japanese approach to North Korea. The lapel pins symbolize the importance of the issue. They are an important wrinkle in the fabric of a critical foreign policy hotspot.