Oct. 15 will mark the 10th anniversary since five Japanese citizens were repatriated from North Korea after being abducted by Pyongyang’s agents in the 1970s. The government claims that the North has failed to properly address the fate of 12 more Japanese abductees that remain missing, while others say there could be as many as 100 or more.
Following are questions and answers regarding the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea’s secretive regime:
When did the abductions take place?
According to the government, a number of Japanese citizens started disappearing in the 1970s “under strange circumstances.” But the government did not take any action for a long time due to a lack of evidence.
The abduction issue took a major turn when North Korean agents who had defected began to testify in the 1980s that Pyongyang was behind the kidnapping of numerous foreigners, and that many of the victims were Japanese.
One such agent was Kim Hyun Hui, who was responsible for the bombing of a Korean Air jet in 1987 that killed all 115 people aboard. The plane went down over the Andaman Sea near Thailand while en route to Seoul from Baghdad. Kim has said that one of the Japanese abductees, Yaeko Taguchi, had been her Japanese instructor back home.
The Japanese government has certified 17 citizens as victims of abduction, of which five were returned to Japan in October 2002. Meanwhile, Pyongyang has only admitted to abducting 13 Japanese, and that those who did not return 10 years ago had died.
Meanwhile, a private investigation commission headed by lawyers, journalists, college professors and politicians say that there are more than 100 cases of missing persons stretching back to the 1940s that might have been forerunners of the well-publicized abductions of later years.
Why did North Korea abduct Japanese citizens?
The Headquarters for the Abduction Issue, as the government task force is called, states on its website that North Korea’s motive for abducting the Japanese remains unclear. But the task force suggests that Pyongyang was likely trying to recruit spies out of the abductees with the eventual goal of having them infiltrate other nations.
The headquarters also says that Japanese abductees may have been valuable as teachers for North Korean agents, instructing them on the Japanese language, culture and customs.
How were the victims taken?
Most of the abductions are believed to have taken place in prefectures bordering the Sea of Japan and that boats were used to carry them to North Korea.
It the case of Kaoru Hasuike, who was taken on July 31, 1978, and repatriated to Japan in October 2002, the abduction occurred on a beach in Niigata Prefecture.
In his book “Yume Ubawaretemo” (“Even with My Dreams Lost”), published in October 2011, Hasuike recalls the fateful day.
“We were sitting at a spot on the beach and talking when one of them (North Korean agents) approached me and asked for a light for his cigarette. It was a trick to have us off guard. While we were exchanging some talk about the lighter, I was hit from behind.”
Hasuike, who was a 20-year-old student at the time, and his girlfriend, Yukiko, whom he later married in North Korea, were quickly surrounded by four North Korean agents and forced into a large sack before being taken to a boat. The whole incident took less than an hour, he wrote.
Hitomi Soga, who was abducted in Niigata on Aug. 12, 1978, has recounted that she was out shopping with her mother, Miyoshi, when three men attacked the pair and took them to a small boat. Soga returned to Japan in 2002, but her mother has been missing since the day she was abducted.
Hasuike states in his book that it is unlikely he was chosen as a target for a specific reason, and that the kidnapping occurred randomly. But some point out that the agents were ordered to take Japanese from a variety of backgrounds and age groups. Soga was a 19-year-old nurse when she was abducted.
What was life like in North Korea for the abducted Japanese?
The former abductees said they experienced difficult times.
In his book published years after he was kidnapped from Niigata, Hasuike wrote: “I remember wondering why (the city) was so dark,” referring to his arrival in the northeastern city of Chongjin. At first he tried to convince his kidnappers to release him before the new term began at his university, but eventually he gave up and began to study Korean “as a means to survive.”
A year and nine months later he was reunited with Yukiko and eventually they married and had two children.
The family was not wealthy, but they were provided food, clothes and homes to live in. At times Hasuike worked as an interpreter, and sometimes the work included translating Japanese newspaper articles into Korean.
In his book “To Tell The Truth,” U.S. Army deserter Charles Jenkins, who married Soga while in North Korea, recalls his family’s time in the reclusive state as an ongoing battle against cold weather, hunger, poverty and a lack of sanitation.
Did North Korea abduct people from other countries?
The public relations office of the Japanese government states that abductions by North Koreans have likely taken place in several countries, including South Korea, Thailand, Romania and Lebanon.
When did Pyongyang admit the abductions?
North Korea continued to deny its involvement in any of the disappearances until Sept. 17, 2002, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang and held Japan’s first bilateral summit with Kim Jong Il.
Kim acknowledged the kidnappings and apologized. He also promised that his country would not conduct similar misdeeds again.
What was the outcome of the Kim-Koizumi meeting?
North Korea agreed to return five abductees who were still alive, and provided death certificates for another eight. They claimed that only 13 Japanese had been abducted.
But the move is believed to be an attempt by Pyongyang to quickly put the issue behind it and move on to normalizing bilateral relations with Japan in order to gain economic assistance in return.
Negotiations to seek the return of all Japanese abductees continued, with North Korea in 2004 agreeing to open an investigation to obtain a full account of the incidents. However, the Japanese government states that Pyongyang has not provided adequate evidence since then. The government set up the headquarters for the abduction issue and appointed a Cabinet minister in charge of the issue for the first time in 2006, but talks have not made much progress recently. North Korea’s launch of ballistic missiles and nuclear tests in the following years have derailed all efforts.
Is there any chance of the abduction issue making progress soon?
Ryutaro Hirata, who heads the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, said that the key is in raising public awareness about the issue.
“Negotiations could also move forward when North Korea is in need of Japan’s aid. For example, if they are experiencing droughts, they will come asking for assistance. The Japanese government needs to seize such opportunities and try to rescue the abductees,” Hirata told The Japan Times.
Hirata’s group, consisting of nonprofit organizations, has been working closely with family members of the abductees. He said there are high hopes following the news that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who played a key role in the 2002 Kim-Koizumi summit, was elected last month to lead the opposition Liberal Democratic Party.
“There are high expectations among us that Mr. Abe will push the prime minister (Yoshihiko Noda) to take a firm stance against North Korea,” Hirata said. He believes the government should strengthen sanctions against Pyongyang over the abduction issue and not only for the nuclear and ballistic missile tests.
What are the five repatriated abductees doing in Japan today?
Hasuike eventually finished his university education and has written books on his experience as well as textbooks for learning Korean. In addition to his job as a translator he also serves as a lecturer at Niigata Sangyo University. His wife is reportedly working at their local City Hall and their two children have graduated from school.
Yasushi Chimura and his wife, Fukie, both abducted in July 1978, work in their local City Hall in Fukui Prefecture.
While working at a nursing home for the elderly in Niigata Prefecture, Soga continues to seek the return of her missing mother.
“My head becomes filled with guilt and regret about the fact that only I have returned to Japan,” Soga wrote in a statement released last month to mark the decade since her return. “How long will this continue? There is still no end in sight.”
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