Tuesday, December 18, 2007


30 Years After Abductions, Questions Haunt Japanese
Issue Casts Shadow Over Ties With N. Korea, U.S.
By Akiko Yamamoto and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 16, 2007; Page A32

NIIGATA, Japan -- Megumi Yokota was walking home from badminton practice here in Niigata, on the northern coast of Japan, when North Korean agents grabbed the 13-year-old and packed her off to a waiting ship.

That was 30 years ago. North Korea says she is long dead, a suicide. But her parents -- and millions of Japanese -- refuse to believe it. They regard Yokota as very much alive, a woman now in midlife, deprived of her freedom in a closed communist state.

"What is she being forced to do?" asked her mother, Sakie Yokota, 71. "Why can't she come back?"

For Japan, the political potency of these anguished questions is almost impossible to overstate. The unresolved questions about Yokota and seven other Japanese have become a national obsession, a public-opinion fault line that Japanese politicians dare not cross and a formidable roadblock for diplomacy in Northeast Asia.

With North Korea emerging from its Stalinist shell and acceding to U.S. demands to disable its nuclear facilities, Japan's enduring anger over the decades-old abductions is not only blocking improved ties with North Korea but also straining relations with Japan's most important ally, the United States.

"I vow to have in mind the abduction issue as the first priority in the normalization process with North Korea," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in October after meeting families of the abductees.

Japanese officials express concern about the Bush administration's apparent willingness to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism -- without explicitly linking that removal to progress on the abduction issue.

Japanese officials have said removing North Korea from the list would gloss over that country's continuing terrorist activities and human rights abuses, while undermining Japan's efforts to bring the abductees home.

"The U.S.-Japan relationship is changing because of the abduction issue," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, professor of North Korea studies at Tokyo's Waseda University. "Japan is thinking the United States doesn't think the abductions are important and that we are losing our common values."

The number of Japanese who believe Japan and the United States are not on good terms has risen nine percentage points in the past year, to 20.4 percent, the highest in a decade, according to a government opinion poll released last week.

While the Bush administration has begun delivering fuel to North Korea, Japan says it will not take part in any economic or energy assistance unless it gets a detailed, credible explanation of what happened to its kidnapped citizens.

orea. They include a ban on all imports from the country and an order that keeps its ships out of Japanese ports. There is also a ban on the export of Japanese luxury goods to the North.

A court in Japan has cracked down on Chosen Soren, the de facto North Korean embassy in Japan, ordering it to pay $550 million on overdue debts it owes the Japanese government. The order is likely to force the organization to close.

There was no official news about Megumi Yokota for 25 years. But evidence mounted that she had been a victim in a series of kidnappings that North Korean agents appeared to be staging in Japanese coastal communities to obtain teachers to train spies in language and culture.

North Korean defectors provided snippets of information -- Megumi was locked in a dark chamber of the ship that took her away; she scratched on the walls throughout the voyage; she arrived in North Korea covered in blood, with her nails partially ripped from her fingers.

They said, too, that she tried many times to escape from North Korea but was caught and forced back.

Her family eventually left Niigata and settled in Kawasaki City, near Tokyo. But before moving, her parents left a note for their daughter on the door of their former house. It listed their new address and said they would be waiting for her.

A Case of Suicide?

In September 2002, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, admitted publicly that his agents had abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and '80s, including Megumi Yokota.

Kim's government returned five of the abductees to Japan the following month. But Yokota and the seven others, the North Koreans said, had died.

Yokota had married a South Korean man who had come to the North, and they had had a daughter, the officials said. The North Koreans released photographs that they said showed Yokota, first as a terrified teenager shortly after her abduction, later as a poised young woman. But, the North Koreans said, she became mentally unstable and in 1993 killed herself.

Japan rejects the North's account. It says death documents were forged. Japanese DNA tests have shown that cremated bones sent from North Korea were not the remains of the missing abductees. "How can you trust a government that sends you phony bones?" asked a senior government official in Tokyo.

The Japanese media were allowed to interview the girl identified as Yokota's daughter, but the girl's grandparents in Japan have never seen her. "We are waiting every single day" to see Megumi and her daughter, Sakie Yokota said.

In Japan, the political impact of the abduction saga has not diminished with the passage of time. The Japanese government itself helps keep the issue alive.

This year the government's Headquarters for the Abduction Issue released a DVD titled "Abduction: An Unforgivable Crime."

The U.S. ambassador to Japan, J. Thomas Schieffer, sent a private cable this fall to President Bush, warning that U.S.-Japanese relations could be damaged if Washington offered incentives to Pyongyang before the North had accounted for the abductees to the satisfaction of the Japanese.

Until recently, the Bush administration seemed to consider progress on the issue a prerequisite for taking North Korea off the terror list.

Bush met last year at the White House with Sakie Yokota and her son, Takuya, and called the meeting "one of the most moving meetings since I've been the president."

After a White House meeting in November with Japan's prime minister, Bush said he understood "how important the issue is to the Japanese people, and we will not forget the Japanese abductees, nor their families."

But later that day, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the delisting and the abductees "are not necessarily specifically linked."

The families continue to lobby in Washington. In November, Sakie Yokota and her husband, Shigeru, sent letters to more than 100 U.S. lawmakers, asking for help in keeping North Korea on the list.

But some relatives are losing hope in that fight. Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister, Rumiko, was kidnapped by the North in 1978, said his November trip to Washington was a bust.

"I took removing the designation as an already established course of action," he said.


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