OSAKA — On the morning of July 7, 1973, 18-year-old Noriko Furukawa of Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, left home for a beauty parlor appointment without telling her mother, with whom she had promised to go shopping that afternoon.

Shortly afterward, the beauty parlor received a phone call from the girl. Noriko canceled her appointment, saying she had someplace else she had to go.

The woman who took the call knew both Miyamotos, and was asked by Noriko to call her mother and tell her that, because of the sudden change in plans, she could not go shopping.

That was the last anybody ever heard from Noriko. She vanished without a trace.

The family didn’t start suspecting a Pyongyang connection to her disappearance until media reports started appearing in the late 1990s about a North Korean defector who confirmed he had encountered a Japanese woman who had disappeared as a young girl in the 1970s, also under mysterious circumstances. That girl was apparently Megumi Yokota, who was abducted from Niigata in 1977.

The man, former spy An Myong Jin, who defected a decade ago, was later shown photos of other missing Japanese, including Furukawa. He said he had encountered a woman resembling her, prompting Noriko’s older sister, Tamaji Takeshita, to meet with him in Seoul last Dec. 6.

“I showed An a picture of Noriko, and he told me that in 1991, while he was a patient at a Pyongyang hospital, he saw a woman who looked a lot like her. An said he saw the woman, who also appeared to be a patient, for about five minutes.

“He even called out to her, but she didn’t seen to understand Korean,” Takeshita said.

Noriko Furukawa is one of 12 Japanese that a group looking into suspected abductions believes were highly likely to have been spirited away to the North.

The Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea (COMJAN), which was established last January, has probed about 370 missing person cases.

The all-volunteer group often gets its information from relatives of the missing who suspect North Korea was involved in the disappearances. Although it stresses there is a possibility many of those on the list were indeed abducted by North Korea, the group considers 12 in particular to be “priority cases” based on currently available evidence.

The number of people contacting the group for help increased sharply following Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in September 2002. At the summit, the North admitted it abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s.

Members of COMJAN have also spent the past 10 months pushing Diet members, the Foreign Ministry, the National Police Agency and the Defense Agency to reopen long-forgotten or buried cases, and consider the possibility that many of those people may have been taken to North Korea.

But the search for new clues that might point to a North Korean abduction has been a frustrating struggle because many missing person cases are decades old.

Finding people who knew the missing can be a tall order. Some have died; others are unreachable or simply do not want to get involved. And even those who do want to get involved are often of little help.

“A major problem with collecting testimony is that memories fade with time. People simply don’t remember the details, and it’s very hard, sometimes impossible, for police and investigators to collect enough evidence to establish the possibility of an abduction by North Korea,” said Kazuhiro Araki, who heads the group.

Takeshita said that after returning from the meeting with An, she asked Chiba police to reopen the case on her sister.

“They agreed to do so, and we have been meeting on a regular basis since then,” she said. “But they keep saying that, at this point, there is no evidence to convince them that Noriko was kidnapped to North Korea.”

The government’s position is that only when police have persuasive evidence that a missing person has been abducted and taken abroad will they have the Foreign Ministry contact the foreign government in question.

Of the 12 “highly likely” cases probed by Araki’s group, the government has taken such action on three, asking North Korea for information. Noriko Furukawa was not among them.

What constitutes persuasive evidence? For Takeshita, as well as the families of the missing people and their supporters, An’s testimony is as good as gold.

He was the first to reveal, in 1996, to the Japanese media the whereabouts of Megumi Yokota — one of 13 Japanese the North later admitted abducting.

Since then, he has been the primary, and sometimes only, source for much of the information about some of the 15 Japanese officially recognized by Tokyo as having been abducted, as well as those, including Furukawa, who are not on the list.

But police and government officials are cautious about relying too much on the words of one North Korean defector who claims to be able to identify faces he briefly saw more than a decade ago.

While some MPD investigators have traveled to South Korea and met An unofficially, Japanese police have yet to officially take his testimony on specific cases.

“Although An told Ms. Takeshita that he saw a woman who appeared to fit the description of her sister, he also said he wasn’t 100 percent sure. Chiba police have not yet spoken to An. They are still gathering information locally,” said Minoru Nakamura, head of a Chiba Prefecture-based citizens’ group that is working with COMJAN to press for recognition of Furukawa as a Pyongyang abduction victim.

Araki said that over the past year, public support for COMJAN’s efforts has grown, and that is now being translated into political support.

“Many of those who are campaigning for the upcoming (Lower House) election are making the North Korean abductions an issue, and are promising their support to us and to the families,” he said. “But more needs to be done at the bureaucratic level.”

For the relatives and their supporters, however, the process is slow, frustrating and hampered by the fact that much of the work is being done not by government officials but by part-time volunteers.

“I’m grateful to COMJAN and others for their hard work,” Takeshita said. “But when you think about it, it’s strange that this work has to be carried out by volunteers. Collecting information and evidence about missing persons should be the duty of the government.”

Araki agrees, and he and COMJAN are pushing the government to establish a new public entity that would serve as a clearing house for information about those who vanished, coordinate communications between police and Foreign Ministry officials and, in general, make it easier for the government to officially declare somebody as having probably been abducted to North Korea.

But Takeshita, Nakamura and Araki all admit that getting that kind of cooperation from the government is going to be difficult.

“The Japanese government, especially the Foreign Ministry, dithered on the abduction issue for years for reasons we still don’t fully understand,” Takeshita said. “I intend to continue to push for answers about what happened to Noriko. But the way the bureaucracy is set up makes getting answers, or taking action to find her, very tough and time-consuming.”

COMJAN meanwhile feels a sense of urgency. On Oct. 15 — the first anniversary of the return of the five Japanese abductees — the group sent letters to the Prime Minister’s Official Residence and the Defense Agency, warning that, in the event of a coup d’etat in North Korea, any abductees there could be in great peril.

They urged the government to consider dispatching Self-Defense Forces units to try to rescue them if the Kim Jong Il regime collapses, and called on the SDF to begin training for such a mission.

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