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Japanese Candidates Avoid Abductee Issue

November 6, 2003

TOKYO (AP) _ The drama enraged all of Japan, rekindled a Cold War rivalry, was touted as a crowning coup for Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, then turned into a dangerous political liability.

Japan’s tug-of-war with North Korea over five Japanese kidnapped by communist spies and returned after a quarter-century in captivity has all the makings of a flash point in this weekend’s highly contested parliamentary elections.

Yet candidates are avoiding the topic with an uncharacteristic silence that only underlines how intractable the stalemate has become and how dour the fate of the returnees.

Even as politicians hit the campaign trail, the main opposition Democratic Party hadn’t addressed the abduction issue in its platform. Koizumi’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which engineered the abductees’ return as a key political victory just a year ago, buried it as point six of seven in theirs, offering only vague pledges to ``definitely resolve″ the issue.

For relatives of the victims and their supporters, it smacks of betrayal.

``I’m very frustrated that most Japanese don’t seem to be interested in the abductions,″ said Toru Hasuike, who’s brother Kaoru was snatched in 1978 by North Korean agents, stuffed in a sack and thrown in a motorboat headed across the Sea of Japan.

Supporters have tried to turn the abductions into a major campaign issue. To pin politicians to a stance, they have even sent questionnaires to the 1,159 contenders for the 480 seats up for grabs Sunday in the powerful lower house.

Three days before ballots are cast, 985 candidates had replied to the three questions.

About 93 percent agreed the kidnappings, during the 1970s and 80s, were a form of terrorism.

But only about half agreed with the group’s demand that new laws be passed to crack down on North Korea by restricting trade, monetary remittances and port calls from its ships.

Ryutaro Hirata, a spokesman for the abductees’ support group, said the number of candidates supporting their stance now is not important; what counts is who gets elected. To that end the group intends to post each candidate’s response Friday on its Website as a guide to voters.

The plight of the five returnees, all kidnapped in 1978 and now in their 40s, was all but forgotten until Koizumi visited North Korea last autumn for an unprecedented summit with leader Kim Jong Il. Kim shocked Japan by admitting they had been abducted, apparently to train communist agents in Japanese language and customs.

Koizumi won huge political points back home by securing their Oct. 15 homecoming, originally scheduled to be just a two-week visit. But the group chose to stay, leading to a yearlong tug-of-war and series of embarrassments for the Japanese leader.

Repeated attempts to retrieve the group’s children, who are still in North Korea, to hold negotiations on normalizing relations with Pyongyang, or to link the abductions talks to the global standoff over North Korea’s alleged nuclear arms programs have all been rebuffed.

It was a ripe situation for the Democrats to go in for a campaign kill, but they didn’t.

``The issues hadn’t materialized... Candidates are speaking very carefully because no one has concrete plans to resolve it,″ said Tetsuro Kato, a political scientist at Hitotsubashi University.

Taking a hardline against North Korea is difficult because Pyongyang has equated economic sanctions to an act of war. North Korea has deemed the abduction issue over and done, shunning more talks on the matter.

The Tokyo government has vowed to keep the pressure on North Korea.

But in the election run up, politicians are finding it more useful to pull at people’s pursestrings, rather than heartstrings. Calls to reform Japan’s sluggish economy and battle unemployment have all but drowned out voices hoping to rectify tragedies of decades gone by.

And many voters seem to think that’s OK.

``We have to clarify the abduction issue and get a response from North Korea,″ said Kunihiro Aihara, a 56-year-old designer in Tokyo. ``But the economy is something that’s affecting everybody right now.″

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On the Web: www.sukuukai.jp