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Questions Linger Over N. Korean Kidnappings

Asia: Many relatives of the Japanese victims call Pyongyang's revelations a cruel hoax.

September 20, 2002|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — New details are emerging about the fate of a dozen Japanese citizens who the North Koreans acknowledged this week were abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. But many in Japan still wonder: Are the revelations true?

Megumi Yokota, who vanished in 1977 at age 13 on the way home from badminton practice in northwestern Japan, is said to have died in North Korea 10 years ago. A 15-year-old identified as her North Korean daughter says she still has the racket her mother ostensibly carried the day of the abduction.

Two of the victims reportedly died on the same November day in 1988, at ages 28 and 31, five and eight years after their abductions. Other kidnapping victims also died young: one in his 20s, the rest in their 30s and 40s.

And the man identified as Kaoru Hasuike, one of the four victims reportedly still alive, says he isn't sure he wants to return to Japan.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Tuesday admitted for the first time that his nation kidnapped at least 12 Japanese citizens. He gave the news to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during a summit in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

The families learned Tuesday only if their relatives were alive or dead--and if they'd had children in North Korea. Most of the details to emerge since have been supplied by Japan's Foreign Ministry and have been slow in coming. In addition, a senior Japanese diplomat met in Pyongyang with Yokota's purported 15-year-old daughter and Hasuike.

But many relatives of the kidnapping victims have branded the details a cruel hoax, more lies from a North Korean regime that for years denied the abductions.

Kim revealed that North Korean agents had abducted the Japanese while relations between the two countries were, as he put it, "abnormal." The victims were used for two purposes, Kim indicated: to provide false identities and to teach their language to spies who with Japanese identities could more easily infiltrate South Korea.

How at least eight victims died still isn't known. North Korea has said only that they succumbed to "disease or disaster."

The victims' survivors in Japan minced no words in belittling the actions of their own government, not only for failing to take enough action in the past but also for bungling the present. Authorities didn't bring to North Korea photographs of those said to be alive, or DNA samples, or even ask the Japanese families about physical characteristics that might help verify identities.

Without those, there's little left other than North Korea's word.

"They didn't take any sort of recording device, no cameras, no video cameras, nothing," charged Hasuike's brother, Toru. "All the ministry did was transmit North Korea's information."

Tsutomu Nishioka, a spokesman for the National Assn. for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, said he suspects that most or all of the victims are alive. "But now there's a real risk that Megumi Yokota and others may be killed for real."

The long-standing support group includes 25 civic organizations and families of 70 people also thought to have been kidnapped.

Indeed, the issue is so highly charged here that it could cloud negotiations set to begin next month toward establishing formal ties between Japan and North Korea. Kim and Koizumi agreed to the talks as part of a declaration issued at the summit.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe of Japan told the Daily Yomiuri newspaper that allowing the four surviving victims to return home would be a prerequisite for resuming talks. But a spokeswoman for the prime minister said Koizumi plans to start the talks regardless. "We first have to respect the will of the families and those still alive in North Korea," said Misako Kaji, the spokeswoman. "The government is trying to help and facilitate visits."

Visas are being arranged for any relatives who want to visit North Korea, though it isn't clear when the surviving abductees might be able to visit Japan.

How and when the details of the kidnappings and deaths were released also have become controversial. News reports Thursday night suggested that Koizumi may not have known until just before he signed the summit declaration exactly how many of the kidnapping victims had died. Whether that was because his own bureaucrats or Kim had held back the information isn't clear.

Koizumi said Thursday that he was "shocked by the number of deaths."

Yasuo Fukuda, chief Cabinet minister, acknowledged that the government was still withholding some of the information North Korea had provided, saying it was important to confirm it before going public.

Megumi Yokota's father, Shigeru, said the Foreign Ministry told him that Japanese diplomat Kazuyoshi Umemoto met in North Korea with the teenager said to be Megumi's daughter, Kim Hae Gyong. The teen reportedly said that she knew her mother as Ryu Myong Suk and that the woman had married a North Korean.

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