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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Captured as a Pawn of Politics

North Korea allegedly kidnapped dozens of Japanese to abet the cause of Communism. The parents of one have sought her since 1983.

June 25, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KOBE, Japan — After nearly two decades of tears, anguish and bureaucratic frustration, the Arimoto family finally met their daughter's kidnapper.

For years, they'd imagined what they would say to the person responsible for taking their round-faced Keiko away so many years before. How they'd convey the pain and anger they'd suffered, and the fear as they'd imagined the worst, before finally learning years later that the 23-year-old had been lured to Communist North Korea--where she may still be alive.

Then self-confessed kidnapper Megumi Yao walked into their hotel suite in Yokohama, fell to the floor and begged forgiveness. Keiko's mother, Kayoko Arimoto, found herself weeping with Yao and trying to comfort her.

"I couldn't really get mad at her," Arimoto says. "She was crying so much. It just made me cry as well."

One of the strangest chapters in North Korea's bizarre recent history involves the totalitarian regime's alleged practice during the 1970s and '80s of kidnapping Japanese--11 by official count, and as many as 70 according to Japanese abductee groups.

The victims ranged in age from 13 to 52 at the time they are said to have been taken from Europe and Japan for various purposes: to help train North Korean spies, to serve as wives for other kidnapped Japanese or, eventually, to help spread a Communist revolution to Japan. The North Korean government vehemently denies there were abductions, or having any role in Keiko's disappearance from London, but has nonetheless said it will search for the missing.

For years, Keiko's father kept up a lonely fight for information on the whereabouts of his lost daughter. He hounded Japanese police, Foreign Ministry bureaucrats and slick politicians who refused to listen to or believe him, brushing him off with one excuse or another. It wasn't their jurisdiction. They couldn't do anything without a body. She'd probably met someone and run away.

"My concern over the years has been the lack of activity by the Japanese government," said Christopher Poll, who was Keiko's host father in England at the time of her disappearance. "It completely failed to protect its people despite evidence that something had happened."

Ten days after Yao met with the Arimotos in March, she voluntarily testified before the Tokyo District Court in a further bid to assuage her guilt.

Her testimony electrified the nation, as she described how she'd sidled up to Keiko after trying to snare two other young Japanese. How she'd earned Keiko's trust by playing up their shared upbringing before delivering the hook: a job offer and the lure of an exciting life overseas.

Earlier this year, President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi discussed the issue during their Tokyo summit. And after Yao's confession, Japan officially listed Keiko as abducted by North Korea--a step sought by her father for years.

At a Japanese-North Korean Red Cross meeting in Beijing in late April, North Korea agreed to step up its search for Japanese "lost" in its country. The pledge was made even though the government has "searched" before to no avail, decrying as recently as December Japan's "fuss" over the "nonexistent" issue.

The obstacles ahead are daunting: The two countries have technically been at war for more than half a century. And it may be difficult to get a sovereign nation--and a mercurial one, at that--to admit it's been in the kidnapping business.

Despite all the impediments, the Arimotos still hold out hope that they'll one day see their daughter alive.

*

Keiko was born Jan. 12, 1960, the third of six children, and grew up in the same house her parents live in today. Family members recall her as an easy baby and a quiet child. Her grandfather, who refused to baby-sit for the youngest children, gladly cared for Keiko. Ask her to do anything, her mother recalls, and she'd bow her head politely and say yes.

Keiko's four sisters and a brother always had loads of friends running through the house. Keiko was a quiet soul and tended to get lost in the shuffle. Her one close girlhood friend, Masae Koya, remembers how serious, and distinctly unimpressive, she appeared to most of her teachers and classmates.

Occasionally, Keiko would let loose and show a wilder side, her mother says, by laughing and carrying on, but generally only with her younger sister Ikuko. In high school, Keiko started studying English in earnest. Her mother believes that this represented less a thirst for foreign culture than an interest in the technical aspects of linguistics. Ikuko disagrees, citing her sister's keen interest in British pop bands.

There are other signs that Keiko was trying to stretch her wings. She moved out of the house toward the end of high school, a relatively unusual step in Japan, and enrolled in college classes at night, staying with an unmarried aunt.

In March 1982, armed with an Anglo-American studies degree, she graduated from the Kobe City University of Foreign Studies.

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