OSAKA — North Korea may feel that the abduction issue has been resolved and that Japan should now proceed with normalization talks, but for relatives of the Japanese abductees and their supporters, the five survivors and the eight reported dead by Pyongyang represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Both groups say they will press the Japanese government to find out what happened not only to the eight reported dead, but also to other Japanese who vanished under mysterious circumstances and may also have been taken to North Korea.
In a statement released Wednesday night following the conclusion of normalization talks between Japan and North Korea in Kuala Lumpur, the support groups and families praised Foreign Ministry negotiators for emphasizing to North Korea the importance of the abduction issue. The ministry had long been criticized by the relatives as being indifferent over the issue.
“We continue to seek answers to the questions surrounding not only the reported deaths of the eight other Japanese whom North Korea admitted kidnapping, but also other Japanese who are not officially recognized by either government as having been abducted,” said the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN).
That presents a major problem for negotiators on both sides. The group and the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea say at least three more Japanese should be on the Japanese government’s list of abductees. Others believe the true number is several dozen.
“We don’t know how many Japanese were kidnapped. It might be 60. It might be 100,” said Hiroshi Miyabe, a municipal assembly member of Yao, Osaka Prefecture, who is a member of a national network of local-level politicians who support the relatives.
Since early October, some media have published lists of Japanese who disappeared in the late 1970s and 1980s and are suspected of having been taken to North Korea. The government’s position is that these people are “missing,” and both support groups and the government admit that in most cases, there is no direct evidence of an abduction.
The support groups, however, intend to press police and the government to further investigate the disappearances, some of which occurred nearly 40 years ago.
Since North Korea admitted in September that it had abducted Japanese, NARKN has been flooded with phone calls from people who wonder if their missing kin also suffered the same fate.
“Since (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi’s visit to North Korea, we’ve gotten over 50 inquiries from people around Japan saying that they suspected a loved-one had been kidnapped to North Korea,” NARKN spokesman Kazuhiro Araki said. He added, however, that his group is not an investigative body and thus there was little it can do other than alert police and politicians to the reports.
Araki said his group believes there are at least three Japanese not on the official abductee list who are in North Korea and it wants this verified. They include Minoru Tanaka, who disappeared from Kobe in June 1978; Kimiko Fukutome, who vanished while in Mongolia in 1976; and Kenzo Kozumi, who disappeared from Hokkaido in 1961.
Suspicions that they are in North Korea have been raised by several different sources.
Cho Ryu Un, a former member of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) who spied for Pyongyang for more than two decades, told The Japan Times two years ago that Tanaka was abducted from Kobe.
Cho, who passed away last year, said that while he was serving as a spy, he heard that possibly up to 100 Japanese had been abducted.
Fukutome is believed to have been abducted to provide a wife for one of the Japanese Red Army Faction fugitives who hijacked a Japan Airlines jet to North Korea in 1970. Kozumi’s name surfaced in the 1980s, when a North Korean agent entered Japan under his name.
Other sources who provided confirmation to the media and the Japanese government about those who are known to have been kidnapped to North Korea include North Koreans who defected to South Korea, one or two ex-members of Chongryun, and those connected to the JAL skyjackers.
An Myon Jin, a former North Korean spy who defected to South Korea in the early 1990s, has been a main source of information on several of the abductees who returned to Japan last month. He provided much of the testimony on an unofficial basis to Japanese lawmakers. This paved the way for the government to add Megumi Yokota, Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto to the abductee list.
An said in 1994 that when he was a student at a North Korean military academy six years earlier, he was told that one of the Japanese language teachers was Yokota. North Korea said she was abducted in 1977 and claims she hanged herself in 1993.
An said he later heard about a Japanese man who was particularly good at carpentry, an apparent reference to Chimura, who was a carpenter’s apprentice when he disappeared.
Chimura and Hamamoto married in North Korea and have been back in Japan since mid-October.
An’s claims were accepted as truth and led the government in 1997 to list Yokota and Chimura as probable abductees.
Other evidence, including Cho’s testimony about Tanaka and the reports about Fukutome and Kozumi, have not yet been enough to convince the government. But NARKN said it will keep pressing.
“We believe these three are in North Korea, and are working to have them listed as abducted,” Araki said. The list, already officially containing 15 names, is expected to grow over the coming months as relatives and their supporters in Japan reopen old cases and investigate new claims.