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North Korea gave Japan the dates eight of its abducted nationals died, but the Foreign Ministry withheld the information from the next of kin until it was reported in a newspaper, government officials said Thursday.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda confirmed that the government obtained the information just before Tuesday’s landmark summit in Pyongyang between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Following the revelation, which was prompted by a media report Thursday morning, the ministry conveyed the information to relatives of the deceased by telephone, the officials said.

According to sources, a list provided by North Korean officials shows that Keiko Arimoto and Toru Ishioka both died Nov. 4, 1988.

Arimoto disappeared in 1983 at the age of 23 while studying in London. Ishioka disappeared in 1980 at age 22 while in Europe. A letter from Ishioka, which reached his family in Sapporo in September 1988, said he was living in Pyongyang with Arimoto and another abductee, Kaoru Matsuki.

If the information is correct, Arimoto and Ishioka died only two months after Ishioka’s letter was delivered to his family.

Matsuki, who went missing in Europe in 1980 at the age of 26, died Aug. 23, 1996, the sources said.

The mother of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 when she was just 13, said she was informed Thursday that her daughter died March 13, 1993.

Shuichi Ichikawa, who was kidnapped in August 1978 at the age of 23, died Sept. 4, 1979, just 13 months after his disappearance. Rumiko Masumoto, then 24 and apparently abducted together with Ichikawa, died Aug. 17, 1981.

Yaeko Taguchi, who disappeared in 1978 when she was 22, reportedly died July 30, 1986. Police believe Taguchi was kidnapped and later became a Japanese-language tutor for Kim Hyon Hui, who was convicted in the bombing of a Korean Air jetliner in 1987.

Tadaaki Hara, who vanished in 1980 when he was 43, died July 19, 1986.

Six of the eight abductees died within less than a decade of their abductions.

During the summit, North Korea provided information on 14 Japanese, including the 11 Tokyo listed as abducted by North Korean agents.

Four Japanese were confirmed alive, while eight were reported dead. North Korea said another national — whose identity has not yet been confirmed by Japan — was alive, while adding that it has not established whether the remaining one had ever entered the country.

According to the government, North Korea said the eight died due to illness or natural disasters but gave no further details as to the circumstances surrounding their demise.

Some relatives of the deceased and their supporters say they suspect the abductees may have been executed by North Korean authorities.

“The fact that Keiko died on the same day as Toru Ishioka indicates they were killed as punishment for sending the letter to Japan, to show other abductees what would happen if they did such a thing,” Kayoko Arimoto, Keiko’s mother, told Kyodo News.

“Even if the information was informal, we need to be told, because that is what the family wants to know. I wonder when the Foreign Ministry will understand our feelings,” she said.

The list was provided by senior North Korean officials to their Japanese counterparts, led by Hitoshi Tanaka, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau, during talks shortly before the two leaders met.

During his regular daily news conference, Fukuda said he had not been informed such a list existed.

However, Koizumi said Thursday he had the information when he faced off with Kim at the summit.

Fukuda said he believed the Foreign Ministry withheld the information because it judged it was “unofficial” since the abductees’ dates of death were not included in a formal document provided later by the Red Cross Society of North Korea.

However, he admitted the government should have relayed the information to the next of kin regardless of “whether it was formal or informal.”

NPA to cast wider net

The National Police Agency said Thursday it will expand its probe into possible abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea in light of Pyongyang’s admission Tuesday that its agents have carried out such operations.

In a turnaround from North Korea’s repeated denials on the abductions, leader Kim Jong Il told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi Tuesday in Pyongyang that North Korean agents abducted Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s and provided information on 14 of them, including the 11 Tokyo officially accused Pyongyang of kidnapping. Most have since died.

Kim apologized and said such incidents will never happen again, Japanese officials said.

“North Korea has owned up to its national terrorist activities, so we will investigate cases other than the 11 people who were believed abducted on eight separate occasions,” an NPA source said.

Groups supporting relatives of missing Japanese believe at least 20 to 30 were abducted to North Korea.

As a first step, the NPA will ask the Foreign Ministry to seek detailed information from North Korea regarding how the people in the eight instances were abducted and on the cause of death of those reported to be deceased, the sources said.

The demand is expected to be made next month when the two countries resume negotiations on normalizing relations based on an agreement between Koizumi and Kim.

The NPA will analyze any information given by North Korea and try to question individuals suspected of involvement in the abductions, as well as the surviving victims, the sources said.

It will also check the cases of Toru Ishioka, Kaoru Matsuki and another individual, not named, who were not on Japan’s original list of 11 abductees.

Ishioka and Matsuki, who are on North Korea’s list of dead, disappeared in Europe in 1980. Some of the nine Japanese Red Army Faction fugitives wanted in the hijacking of a Japan Airlines jetliner to North Korea in 1970 are suspected of involvement in these two cases, according to the sources.

North Korea said the individual, whose Japanese identity has yet to be confirmed, is alive. The NPA hopes to get more information from the Foreign Ministry and to identify the person, the sources said.

A senior NPA official said: “We cannot trust what North Korea has unilaterally said. We will make a thorough investigation for the sake of the families of the victims.”

The NPA got some information on the abductees through investigations following testimony by Kim Hyon Hui, a confessed North Korean agent, about a woman who taught her Japanese in North Korea.

Kim Hyon Hui was convicted and sentenced to death in South Korea for the bombing of a Korean Air jetliner in 1987, but her death sentence was commuted.

She identified the Japanese woman from NPA pictures and said she was living in North Korea under the name Li Un Hye. The NPA said in May 1991 they are almost certain she is Yaeko Taguchi, a Tokyo club hostess who vanished in June 1978 at age 22. Taguchi was on the North Korean list of abducted people who had died.

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