The United Nations has renewed pressure on North Korea to reveal details about hundreds of people abducted decades ago, with a new U.N. special rapporteur, fresh from a fact-finding trip to South Korea and Japan, telling reporters, "You never stop believing the missing are alive."
Argentine lawyer Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on North Korea, made the comment in Tokyo Saturday, after completing a 10-day mission to South Korea and Japan. He also met with defectors and families of individuals abducted by North Korean agents. A final report is due to be released in March.
Ojea Quintana told lawmakers in Japan that he was committed to advancing the return of Japanese taken by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan has officially listed 17 nationals as abductees, but it suspects Pyongyang’s involvement in many more. Five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002.
Takehiro Shimada, a Japanese government policy director, said despite Tokyo’s pleas for information, Pyongyang had failed to respond positively. So, "the government now has [developed] a dual policy."
In part, because “this is a matter of the life and the security of the Japanese citizen, the Japanese government must be responsible for getting [abductees] back to their homeland,” Shamada told VOA.
Also, because North Korea "did not take Japan seriously, we think it’s important for us to cooperate with like-minded countries and the U.N.” in pressing for abductees to be returned.
'Systematic bduction' from other countries
Earlier hopes of a breakthrough had been kindled by a 2014 report issued by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry into the Human Rights of North Korea. It found that North Korea had "engaged in the systematic abduction, denial of repatriation, and subsequent enforced disappearance of persons from other countries."
While most abductees were taken from Japan and South Korea, others were taken from countries including Thailand, Romania, Lebanon, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Italy, the Netherlands and China.
The majority of victims were taken for labor or other skills. Some were abducted to further espionage and terrorist activities, or were subject to forced marriage. All were placed under strict surveillance, the United Nations said.
Anocha Panjoy, a Thai woman, went missing in Macao in 1978 while working as a masseuse. She reportedly was taken by North Korean agents to teach the Thai language and now wants to return to her family in Thailand.
Cherdchai Chaivid, a director in the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry, said the Thai government has been "trying every year" since 2005 to press North Korea on Anocha’s whereabouts in efforts to bring her back.
"Lately, we’ve been trying to get this back on track and we’ve been trying to gain whatever piece of information we could get our hands on," Cherdchai, speaking through a translator, said earlier this month at a Bangkok seminar on foreign abductions to North Korea.
The two countries have diplomatic relations. But it remained unclear whether North Korean officials had acted on Thailand’s requests, including their 2006 promise to set up a committee to investigate Anocha’s case.
Defectors also missing
Another speaker at the Bangkok seminar, North Korean defector Kim Dong Nam, said his son was abducted from China by North Korean agents almost a decade ago. The boy had planned to travel to the United States, but agents learned of those plans through colleagues who’d been captured earlier, Kim said through a translator.
"They weren’t able to withstand the torture," Kim said, noting the colleagues had been "sent back to North Korea and tortured and forced to work for hours – tremendous hours" in a camp.
His son was captured in 2007 in China, taken back to North Korea, escaped and was recaptured after attempting to flee the country, Kim said.
"All we know is that he was captured in 2008," Kim said. "That was the last time I got to talk to my son, and my son said, 'I am tired. Can you please come and help me? Hurry up and come and help me.’ And his words still ring in my head."
Kim said he has had no more news about his son’s welfare.
Speakers at the Bangkok seminar acknowledged little progress had been made in getting North Korea to produce information on abductees and defectors.
"I feel very sorry that we cannot move forward and that the authorities in North Korea respond to the UN communications without sincerity and truth," said Kwon Enkyoung, an official with the nongovernmental organization Open North Korea. "And therefore I have great respect for your tireless efforts and unbeatable [sic] hope that you may have your loved ones back.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the nonprofit rights group is working “to strengthen the alliance of like-minded countries to pressure the North Korean government on abduction.”
Each passing day reduces the amount of time the missing and their relatives could be together, he said.
"Time is running out for some of these families," he said, "and so North Korea has to be persuaded on humanitarian grounds to let those people go that they are still holding."