For the families of many Japanese abducted by North Korea decades ago, Pyongyang’s renewed investigation most likely represents the last chance of seeing their loved ones again.
The elderly relatives say they are pinning all their hopes on the effort before time runs out.
After decades of waiting, they saw a door open in May when Japan and North Korea agreed on a renewed investigation of at least a dozen people Japan believes were abducted. And on Friday, the long overdue investigation began in Pyongyang.
Sakie Yokota said she still believes that her daughter Megumi, abducted nearly 40 years ago, is alive even though North Korea said she’s dead. Like others, Yokota says she is becoming desperate, because she is already 78 and her husband, Shigeru, is 81.
North Korean agents abducted Megumi from the coastal city of Niigata in 1977 as she was walking home from school badminton practice when she was 13.
“All along I’ve believed Megumi is alive and that has never changed. I want her to return to Japan alive, no matter what her condition is,” Yokota said. She said the probe should produce concrete results soon before the chance to learn of their whereabouts is lost forever.
“We don’t have much time left. I hope to see that happen as soon as possible, not months or years from now, because we are all getting old,” she said.
After years of denials, the DPRK acknowledged in 2002 that it had abducted Japanese citizens to train its spies in the 1970s and 1980s, and eventually returned five of them.
It said the others had died or never entered the country. Tokyo disputes that and wants an investigation reopened into at least 12 abductees, including Megumi Yokota.
North Korea, in a report by its Korean Central News Agency, said it will conduct a wide-ranging probe that includes not only the abductees, but also the remains of thousands of Japanese who died in Korea at the end of World War II, as well as any survivors from that era. Japan had colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945, when it lost the war.
Private support groups say hundreds of Japanese were taken in addition to the 12, and suspect many may still be living in North Korea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed not to relent until all the abductees are returned or accounted for.
Teruaki Masumoto, 58, said he thinks this is the best chance to take his sister Rumiko out of the isolated communist nation. Rumiko, who vanished with her boyfriend after driving to a nearby beach to see the sunset, would be 60 this year. They are among the 12 abductees recognized by the government.
“This is our last chance,” he said. “We cannot wait any longer, not even another year. And this time we cannot afford to lose.”
In response to progress on the initiative, Tokyo eased some sanctions on North Korea. It lifted a ban on visits to Japan, allowing some on a case-by-case basis, and made it easier for Japanese and ethnic Koreans in Japan to travel to North Korea. It also raised the reporting threshold for money taken or sent to North Korea and approved port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes, limited to the delivery of food, medicine and clothes in small amounts.
Nevertheless, Japan is still abiding by separate sanctions imposed by the U.N. because of the North’s nuclear and missile programs. These include an arms trade ban, an asset freeze, a ban on people exchanges and restrictions on education and training.
Japanese officials say the eased sanctions will not give a significant economic boost to North Korea or weaken the impact of international efforts to punish and isolate it for nuclear weapons development.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that resuming the six-nation talks on denuclearizing North Korea is too early to consider, despite signs that relations with North Korea are improving.