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Feb. 7, 1976, should have been just another Saturday for Susumu Fujita.

The 19-year-old college student was leaving his house in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, for a part-time job as a security guard in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward. When his father asked if there was any laundry, Fujita answered, “I’ll do that tomorrow because I’ll be off.”

That was the last conversation he had with his family before he disappeared.

Fujita didn’t come home and left no clues as to why. After contacting dozens of his friends and viewing the bodies of unidentified people with police year after year, his family has found nothing to explain his disappearance in the nearly 30 years since that day.

“My father came to believe Susumu left home because he hated him, and that he’d brought him up wrong. That’s miserable,” said Takashi Fujita, the 56-year-old younger brother of Susumu.

“We were just an ordinary family living a humble life. My brother wanted to be a school teacher and had just started studying at university. We had no idea why he left,” he said.

In 2004, the family suddenly and finally understood why Fujita went missing and — if he is still alive — his location. Fujita was allegedly abducted by North Korean agents and taken to Pyongyang.

The lucky break came from a Japanese TV station, which had obtained many photos of Japanese allegedly abducted by North Korea from a defector. One of the people was identified as Fujita, who, according to the defector, was teaching Japanese at a spy academy in Pyongyang.

“We were happy. We believed (Susumu) was already dead,” Takashi told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“We believed we could soon meet him. But another hardship has started,” he said.

The Japanese government has so far claimed at least 17 Japanese were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. But according to the younger Fujita, the government is reluctant to officially recognize that more Japanese — possibly more than a hundred — were taken to the North, including Susumi Fujita.

“(The police) are very bureaucratic. They never officially recognize anyone was abducted by the North unless they have some hard evidence,” the younger Fujita said.

“We have the photo from North Korea — what more do they want?” he asked.

North Korea’s report on its second probe into missing Japanese who might be living in the North, including those abducted by its spies, is due to be released soon. Many families of the missing have their hopes pinned on the report, but many others, like the Fujitas, feel both hope and fear.

The police have a list of as many as 883 potential Japanese abductees.

A citizens’ group that was investigating the abduction issue strongly believed at least 77 of the 883 — including Susumu Fujita — were abducted and have circumstantial evidence suggesting North Korean involvement.

In 2004, professor Seiji Hashimoto of Tokyo Medical University compared the features of the man in the photo from the TV station with a photo of Susumu at the age of 19. He concluded the two photos were of the same man.

Former North Korean spy Ahn Myong Jin also testified that he saw Susumu Fujita in 1990 at Kim Jong Il Political Military University in Pyongyang.

Still, the police and the government won’t officially admit Fujita was abducted, citing insufficient evidence, his brother said.

Takashi Fujita said he fears the possibility that Tokyo and Pyongyang might normalize diplomatic relations if some of the 17 officially abductees are allowed to return to Japan, leaving hundreds of other Japanese, including his brother, behind.

“That’s why we keep insisting (Susumu) should be officially recognized as an abductee,” he said.

Many other families are in the same boat. These concerns appear to be behind a statement by Keiji Furuya, minister in charge of the abduction issue, before Wednesday’s Cabinet reshuffle.

Furuya told reporters Monday that the government is determined to bring “all of the abductees” back to Japan.

Asked if it might be too difficult for the North to explain the whereabouts of more than 800 missing Japanese, Furuya only said: “The ball is in (the North’s) court.”

If the abduction issue is settled, what will it mean for Tokyo? A senior government official close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the key is public reaction.

“It all depends on whether the public is satisfied with (Pyongyang’s explanation) or not,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Asked if the return of the 17 would be enough to satisfy the public, the official said: “I don’t think so.”

The bizarre and tragic fate of the abductees has made the issue a major obstacle in normalizing bilateral relations. The issue first emerged in 1997, when it was reported that a 13-year-old Megumi Yokota of Niigata had been kidnapped in 1977 by North Korean spies and taken to Pyongyang.

The North denied the allegation, but in September 2002, when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted the North had kidnapped 13 Japanese and said five were still alive and eight, including Yokota, had died.

Although the reasons behind the decision remain hazy, the five survivors were allowed to return to Japan that year, although later attempts by the North to prove the deaths of the other eight were debunked by Tokyo.

After further negotiations stalled, the North made an abrupt about-face in July this year by agreeing to set up a special investigation committee on the abduction issue and pledged to release its first report “at the end of summer or the beginning of fall.”

Japanese officials say that this time, Pyongyang may be serious about returning more abductees because ties with China, its biggest ally, have become strained, prompting Pyongyang to view Japan as a counterweight to Beijing.

“This time, the North may be really serious. But we don’t know what exactly is happening in that country,” said a high-ranking government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Given its record of deception and betrayal, many remain skeptical about Pyongyang’s intentions. If it seeks economic assistance in return for only a few abductees, Abe will have to decide whether such a deal will be worth the political cost.

The North’s investigation committee, in fact, is said to be focused not only on suspected abductees but also on other missing Japanese in the country, such as those who were left behind during the confusion that followed the end of World War II, as well as the Japanese spouses of North Koreans who left Japan for a new life in the North.

Officials are concerned that Pyongyang may instead send back Japanese who were not abducted to draw public attention away from the abduction issue.

“We have conducted simulations on every possible scenario of what the North will say (in the report),” Furuya said.

“The Japanese people won’t be satisfied with a half-baked report. So we have kept telling (the North) that they should sincerely respond,” he said.

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