Thursday, April 21, 2005

Abductees, DNA and Nature

An article by Gavan McCormack for Japan Focus summarises the dispute between North Korea and Japan over the North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 80s, and quotes an alarming series of comments from the journal Nature.

The Japanese government, under considerable pressure from public opinion in Japan, has taken a harder line with North Korea in recent months. One key moment of tension came when DNA analysis in Japan of ashes supposedly belonging to Megumi Yokota, one of the abductees, apparently showed that they were not hers but from the remains of two different people.

Sachie Yokota holding a photograph of Megumi Yokota
Sachie Yokota holding a photograph of Megumi Yokota

Now Nature has cast doubt on these findings, as McCormack describes:

An article in the 3 February 2005 issue of the prestigious international scientific journal, Nature, revealed that the DNA analysis on Megumi's remains had been performed by a member of the medical department of Teikyo University, Yoshii Tomio.[8] Yoshii, it later transpired, was a relatively junior faculty member, of lecturer status, in a forensic department that had neither a professor nor even an assistant professor.[9] Remarkably, he said that he had no previous experience in the analysis of cremated specimens, described his tests as inconclusive and remarked that such samples were very easily contaminated by anyone coming in contact with them, like "stiff sponges that can absorb anything." In other words, the man who had actually conducted the Japanese analysis pronounced it anything but definitive. The five tiny samples he had been given to work on (the largest of them 1.5 grams) had anyway been used up in his laboratory, so independent verification was thereafter impossible. It seemed likely as a result that nobody could ever know for sure what Pyongyang's package had contained.

When the Japanese government's chief cabinet secretary, Hosoda Hiroyuki, referred to this article as inadequate and a misrepresentation of the government-commissioned analysis, Nature responded, in a highly unusual editorial (17 March), saying that:

"Japan is right to doubt North Korea's every statement. But its interpretation of the DNA tests has crossed the boundary of science's freedom from political interference. Nature's interview with the scientist who carried out the tests raised the possibility that the remains were merely contaminated, making the DNA tests inconclusive. This suggestion is uncomfortable for a Japanese government that wants to have North Korea seen as unambiguously fraudulent. ...

The inescapable fact is that the bones may have been contaminated. ... It is also entirely possible that North Korea is lying. But the DNA tests that Japan is counting on won't resolve the issue. The problem is not in the science but in the fact that the government is meddling in scientific matters at all. Science runs on the premise that experiments, and all the uncertainty involved in them, should be open for scrutiny. Arguments made by other Japanese scientists that the tests should have been carried out by a larger team are convincing. Why did Japan entrust them to one scientist working alone, one who no longer seems to be free to talk about them?

Japan's policy seems a desperate effort to make up for what has been a diplomatic failure ... Part of the burden for Japan's political and diplomatic failure is being shifted to a scientist for doing his job -- deriving conclusions from experiments and presenting reasonable doubts about them. But the friction between North Korea and Japan will not be decided by a DNA test. Likewise, the interpretation of DNA test results cannot be decided by the government of either country. Dealing with North Korea is no fun, but it doesn't justify breaking the rules of separation between science and politics."[10]

Apart from a brief reference in one weekly journal, no word of this extraordinary exchange penetrated into the Japanese mass media. Three weeks after it, the Foreign Minister told the Diet, in answer to a question, that he knew nothing about the Nature article.[11] Meanwhile, anger at North Korea mounted and preparations went ahead for what was expected to be the largest-yet protest meeting scheduled to be held in Tokyo, on 24 April. As for Mr Yoshii, one week after the Nature editorial he left Teikyo hospital, promoted from lowly university lecturer to the prestigious position of head of the forensic medical department of the Tokyo metropolitan police department. Nature reported, in its third discussion of the case (7 April), that it had been told Yoshii was therefore not available for media comment.[12] The suggestion, in a parliamentary question on 30 March, that this smacked of government complicity in "hiding a witness" drew outrage and the comment from the Minister of Foreign Affairs that it was "extremely regrettable" for such aspersions to be cast on Japan's scientific integrity.[13]

Beyond the immediate parties to the dispute, South Korean forensic scientists also expressed skepticism about the Japanese findings, on grounds of the low possibility of DNA material surviving cremation and the high probability of contamination,[14] and Time magazine (4 April) reported that the technique that Yoshii had used, known as "nested PCR," was one that professional forensic laboratories in the US avoided because of the risk of contamination.[15]

The only certainty is that both governments are lying. Previously it was obvious that both governments were stalling, but I thought that only the North Korean government was lying.

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