Abductees to make first homecoming in 24 years

Five Japanese who were abducted to North Korea in 1978 will step foot on Japanese soil Tuesday for the first time in 24 years, the government announced Wednesday.

The five are Yasushi Chimura, 47, Fukie Hamamoto, 47, Kaoru Hasuike, 45, Yukiko Okudo, 46, and Hitomi Soga, 43, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference.

The five will be visiting Japan for one or two weeks, but not with their children, government officials said. That will have to happen another day, and Fukuda said North Korea is reportedly willing to let the five bring their relatives with them in the future.

Fukuda also officially announced that Japan and North Korea will resume normalization talks starting Oct. 29 in Kuala Lumpur.

The talks are part of an agreement reached Sept. 17 in Pyongyang by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The two agreed that the talks, suspended since October 2000, would resume by the end of this month.

“Japan will take up the abduction issue as the top priority for the upcoming negotiation,” Fukuda said. “We will also try to resolve other concerns, such as operation of North Korea’s spy ships and its attempts to develop nuclear arms and missiles.”

Fukuda’s announcements followed Wednesday’s meeting of a government task force on the resumption of bilateral normalization talks, during which it spelled out Japan’s basic stance toward the upcoming negotiations.

As for the return of the five abductees, Fukuda said the two sides are working on the details of the homecomings, including whether they will return to Japan directly on a charter flight or on a commercial plane via Beijing.

The abductees’ relatives in North Korea, however, will not accompany them on the trip. Fukuda said the decision was made after considering the abductees’ “strong wishes” that their families stay behind.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the five survivors were hesitant about bringing their children, but that North Korea did not oppose Japan’s demand that all of the survivors and their children come to Japan in the future.

“North Korea says they respect the will of the five victims,” the official said. “The children are not coming to Japan this time, but we must realize the return of all the survivors and children.”

In addition, the official indicated that the homecoming of the survivors was one of the conditions for holding the normalization talks this month.

“We talked tough,” the official said. “We demanded that the survivors and their children return to Japan according to the strong wishes of their relatives in Japan, and North Korea responded.”

North Korea, which has been driven to the brink of disaster by prolonged famine and a disintegrating economy, is eager to resume normalization talks with Japan. It is believed Pyongyang yielded because of the severe public criticism the Japanese public has leveled at it over the abduction issue.

At the historic summit, Pyongyang informed Japan that the five were alive and living in communist country. But it also that eight other Japanese nationals it abducted in the 1970s and 1980s have since died.

Chimura was snatched along with Hamamoto in July 1978 in Fukui Prefecture, along the Sea of Japan coast. They reportedly married in November 1979.

Hasuike and Okudo were seized and taken to North Korea in July 1978 from Niigata Prefecture, also along the Sea of Japan coast. They reportedly married in May 1980.

Soga was abducted in August 1978 from Sadogashima Island in Niigata Prefecture along with her mother Miyoshi, who was 46 at the time. North Korea said it knew nothing of Miyoshi.

Former U.S. soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who has reportedly married Soga, will not be among those visiting Japan next week.

Regarding the abductees Pyongyang says are dead, a recent Japanese fact-finding team to the North has uncovered bizarre accounts of their deaths, including a woman who committed suicide after suffering depression and a family which died of gas poisoning.

Their families have dismissed Pyongyang’s accounts as fabrications and are demanding further investigations into the circumstances in which they died.

Abductees’ kin happy

Relatives of the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea expressed surprise and joy Wednesday that five surviving abductees will return for a visit of about two weeks.

But some had mixed feelings because the latest agreement between Tokyo and Pyongyang does not allow them to bring along the families they have made in North Korea.

At a news conference in Tokyo, the family members said they agreed to accept the government’s offer after confirming that Japan will continue to dig up the complete truth behind the kidnappings.

Toru Hasuike, who will be reunited Tuesday with his brother Kaoru for the first time in 24 years, said that as long as the survivors’ children remain in North Korea, the five might be unable to express their feelings freely out of fear of retribution.

When Kaoru returns, however, Toru said he and his brother will listen to some old records they used to like in the hope that it will open up his mind. “I don’t like the word ‘temporary return,’ ” he said. “I want to have him say, ‘I don’t want to go back (to North Korea).’ “

The relatives of abductees who North Korea has reported as dead also welcomed the government’s decision.

“I feel the window of hope (to resolve) the abduction issue has finally begun to open,” Sakie Yokota said. “The time (for the survivors’ return) has come earlier than expected.”

Sakie is the mother of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 and is among eight abductees Pyongyang claims have died.

“I am pleased that the families who have waited more than 20 years will finally be able to be united,” said Teruaki Masumoto. “I’d like to welcome the five together with the other family members.” Masumoto’s elder sister, Rumiko, abducted in 1978, is also among those listed as dead.

Quoting Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Katsumi Sato, the leader of a support group for the abductees’ families, said the united stance of the family members against going to North Korea might have influenced Pyongyang’s decision to let them visit Japan.

The U.S. demand for the return of the former American soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who reportedly married Hitomi Soga, another survivor, might also have had a major impact, Abe reportedly told Sato.

James Kelly, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, reportedly made the demand when he visited Pyongyang earlier last week.