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5 Japanese Abducted by N. Korea Return Home

Kidnapped in 1978 to serve as language teachers, the victims can only stay for two weeks.

October 16, 2002|Valerie Reitman | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO -- Five Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea returned home for the first time in 24 years, their lapels sporting the red badges of the late patriarch Kim Il Sung that are obligatory in the authoritarian nation.

Young adults when they were snatched from Japanese soil in 1978 to serve in North Korea's spy-training camps as language teachers, the returnees are well into middle age. They stepped off the jet, chartered by the Japanese government to fetch them from Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, into the embrace of families bearing flowers, welcome-home banners, Japanese flags and plenty of tears.

Fukie Hamamoto, 47, sobbed as she hugged each of her seven siblings. "She is the sister she used to be," said her older brother, Yuko Hamamoto, after spending time with her on a bus to a downtown Tokyo hotel.

Hidekazu Hasuike, 74, hugged his long-missing son, Kaoru. "I'll never forget that moment," he said.

The reunions are temporary. North Korea did not allow the abductees to bring their children, who are mostly in their teens. Some of their families in Japan have suggested that the children are hostages, inhibiting the returnees from telling the full truth and guaranteeing that they will go back to North Korea in about two weeks.

Hanging over the reunions was North Korea's announcement last month that eight other Japanese it admitted kidnapping in the 1970s and 1980s were dead. North Korea says they died of causes ranging from suicide and drowning to traffic accidents and carbon-monoxide poisoning. Many Japanese believe they're still alive and that as many as five dozen others also may have been abducted.

"For the remainder of my life, I want to work together to rescue the rest of those abducted," Hidekazu Hasuike said.

Although Shigeru Yokota's daughter, who disappeared at age 13, is among those North Korea says are dead, he introduced the returnees and their families on a joyous note. "We've been waiting 24 years for this moment, and they're finally back," Yokota said at a news conference.

North Korea has said his daughter, Megumi Yokota, who vanished after a school badminton practice, killed herself a decade ago.

The Yokotas got word Tuesday that DNA tests had confirmed that a 15-year-old girl North Korea said was Megumi's daughter is indeed probably their granddaughter. The girl had gone to Pyongyang airport at the same time as the others, hoping that her grandparents would arrive, Japanese officials said. The Yokotas said the Japanese government had requested that the teenager be allowed to visit Japan, but North Korea turned it down.

Also at Pyongyang's tiny airport was U.S. defector Charles Robert Jenkins, who was seeing off his wife, Hitomi Soga, according to a Japanese diplomat who traveled to Pyongyang.

Of the five returnees, Soga appeared to be the worst for wear, looking closer to 60 than the 43 she is. She told Japanese diplomats recently that she was shopping with her mother when she was thrown into a sack and taken by boat to North Korea in 1978. Her mother, who disappeared at the same time from Sado island, has not been heard from.

"I really wanted to see you," Soga said in Japanese spoken with a heavy Korean accent.

The abductees spoke only a few sentences at the news conference and, in a characteristically Japanese gesture, several apologized for the worry they'd caused. They left the room without taking questions. Their families, who actively campaigned to get their relatives back, remained and described their reunions for several more minutes.

The abductees are scheduled to return to Pyongyang just before talks aimed at establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea. "I'm very happy" about the returns, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said. "But this does not close the abduction issues."

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