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Japan Granting Funds to Abductees

Bill aims to assist those kidnapped by North Korea and returned.

November 29, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO -- Japan ratcheted up the pressure Thursday on North Korea with passage of a bill granting financial support to Japanese citizens abducted by the communist regime.

The bill, which applies only to those who have returned from the reclusive Stalinist state, was unanimously approved by the lower house of parliament, making it all but certain it will become law within days. Upper house approval is largely a formality.

Five Japanese returned to Japan in mid-October after North Korea acknowledged that it had kidnapped 13 people during the 1970s and '80s to help train its spies.

The law sends a strong signal that Japan will continue to insist that the returnees be allowed to stay in their homeland permanently.

The five originally came to Japan on a "family visit" and were supposed to return to North Korea after two or three weeks. Since their arrival, however, relations between the two wary neighbors have deteriorated and a standoff has ensued, with the five at the center of the tug of war.

Tokyo says the returnees -- including Hitomi Soga, the wife of American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who is officially listed by the Pentagon as a deserter -- have every right to remain here. It further argues that their spouses and children in North Korea should be allowed to join them.

North Korea counters that Japan broke its promise, and it says the five must return.

The Japanese bill grants those abducted by North Korea $1,400 a month, or $2,000 for a couple, plus $250 per child. Various qualifications must be met, but the payments can last up to five years.

With this legislation, "we now have the minimum foundation needed to go to the next level with the abduction issue," said Kazuhiro Haraguchi, a lawmaker with the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and part of a group pressing for the return of all those abducted from North Korea.

"Now we need to get to the truth on the other 80 or 90 suspected victims," he said.

North Korea has admitted only that its agents abducted 13 Japanese; it says the eight others died from traffic accidents, heart attacks and asphyxiation from coal-burning stoves.

Many Japanese have expressed skepticism over the reasons given for the deaths.

Meanwhile, Japanese media reported Thursday that North Korean officials had told Japan that Jenkins had been hospitalized. Reports of the cause varied, including fatigue and heart disease -- nor was it clear whether the announcement was a negotiating gambit.

Tokyo has requested more information and called on North Korea to let Jenkins come to Japan for treatment -- a move that would be complicated by the fact that he still faces arrest by the U.S. government on desertion charges.

Jenkins, who crossed into North Korea in 1965, is 62 years old.

At a news conference today, his wife said she was naturally concerned but would await further information.

"As far as relations between the two countries are concerned, I have faith in the Japanese government," she said.

The news that Japan plans to extend official support to those abducted by North Korea has also sparked criticism from other groups who feel they deserve similar treatment.

"We hope to eventually expand the idea to other victims of international crime, as well as Japanese left behind in China after World War II," Haraguchi said.

Others within the government are wary, however, that expanding the scope of the assistance could awaken sensitive, war-related issues.

At a first-ever North Korean-Japanese summit in September in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, communist officials confessed that "overzealous agents" had abducted the Japanese.

*

Takashi Yokota in The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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