Exclusive: S. Korea to Share Abductee Info With Japan; Unification Minister Says Info to be Gathered From Defectors

Kazuki Koike / The Yomiuri Shimbun
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung Ho talks during his interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Seoul on Thursday.

SEOUL — The South Korean government plans to actively question North Korean defectors for information on Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, and will share any findings with the Japanese government, according to South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung Ho.

In an exclusive interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun in Seoul on Thursday, Kim also said he wanted closer cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul, and indicated it was “extremely” likely that North Korea would continue military provocations near its border with South Korea in the coming months.

Kim is the second unification minister, which oversees relations with North Korea, appointed under the conservative administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Thursday’s interview was Kim’s first with a Japanese media outlet since he assumed the post in July.

The South Korean government’s intention to press North Korean defectors for more information on abductees has raised the possibility of new details to emerge on missing Japanese citizens.

In 2023, 196 North Koreans fled into South Korea. According to Kim, the ministry’s North Korea Human Rights Records Center surveys such defectors to learn about the human rights situation in North Korea and in the questionnaire include sightings of abduction victims.

As these surveys have had an emphasis on South Korean abductees, the question about the nationality of abductees seen in North Korea provides only two answer options: “South Korea” or “other.”

“We’ll add ‘Japan’ to these options in the survey,” said Kim. “We’ll share any information we get with Japan.”

During the Camp David summit in the United States in August 2023, the leaders of Japan, the United States and South Korea agreed to strengthen “cooperation to promote respect for human rights in” North Korea and reaffirmed “a shared commitment to the immediate resolution” of the abductee issue. Sharing information on Japanese abductees is “one way we will faithfully carry out the spirit of that agreement,” explained Kim.

Kim also revealed that the South Korean government plans to build cooperation with relevant Japanese entities to work toward rescuing Japanese and South Korean abductees.

Since late last year, Pyongyang has adopted an increasingly hard-line stance against Seoul. In addition to announcing it was abandoning its policy goal of peaceful reunification with South Korea, North Korea also fired artillery shells into the Yellow Sea near the Northern Limit Line for three consecutive days in January. Given that South Korea will hold a general election in April and the U.S. presidential election is scheduled for November, Kim believes more saber-rattling could be on the way.

“The possibility that [North Korea] will conduct further military provocations is extremely high,” said Kim. He expects such provocations will occur in locations such as near the Northern Limit Line and around the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.

Kim’s stance on North Korea is a clear departure from the policy of left-leaning administration of former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which favored a conciliatory approach.

“Constructing a robust deterrence system is the only way to maintain peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Kim said. He says this could be done by bolstering South Korea’s own military capabilities and strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance and Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation.

Kim Yung Ho

An international relations scholar who during the conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak was a secretary to the president for unification from 2011 to 2012. He was a visiting professor at Tokyo’s Keio University for six months from September 2015 and had been a professor at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul until assuming his current post as unification minister in July 2023.