Three times a day, 88-year-old Kayoko Arimoto makes a ritual offering of food to the daughter she hasn’t seen for 31 years. On her birthday, it’s rice with red beans followed by cake.
Keiko hasn’t taken her place at the family table since being lured to North Korea in 1983 while studying English in London, becoming one of an uncertain number of victims of a North Korean kidnapping program. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to bring home the remaining abductees stalled last week when North Korea said an initial report expected this month wouldn’t be released and final findings may take a year.
“I can’t believe it’s going to take them a year to provide evidence,” Keiko’s father, Akihiro, 86, said in a phone interview Saturday after abductee minister Eriko Yamatani met with the families to tell them of the delay the previous day in Tokyo.
More than a decade after Abe accompanied then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on a trip to Pyongyang that achieved the return of some of the victims, Abe remains convinced that there are abductees still alive and says he is committed to bringing them home. In a country where some of the victims remain household names three decades after their disappearances, a collapse in the talks could potentially hurt support for his government.
Keiko was just one of what may be dozens or hundreds of young Japanese taken by North Korea to help train their spies in Japanese language and customs. In 2002, almost two decades after Keiko’s disappearance, then-leader Kim Jong Il admitted the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens and allowed five of them to return, saying the others, including Keiko, were dead. The families of the five were also later to reunite with the abductees in Japan.
Abe, 60, and other Japanese leaders never accepted the claim and have continued to push for a full accounting. Earlier this year, North Korea acquiesced, and in return, Japan agreed in July to lift some of its sanctions against the regime of Kim Jong Un.
“The abduction problem was the first issue he took up as a politician and it’s what made his name in national politics,” said Yoshiyuki Inoue, an Upper House lawmaker for Your Party who served as secretary to Abe before and during his 2006-2007 administration
At his first major overseas foreign policy speech in Washington in February 2013, Abe underscored the importance of a full resolution of the issue.
“I am wearing a blue-ribbon pin,” Abe told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is to remind myself, each and every day, that I must bring back the Japanese people who were abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s.”
At the home of Keiko’s parents in Kobe, thousands of origami cranes sent as good luck charms by supporters decorate the walls. Keiko’s parents said in an interview last month that they are convinced their daughter is still alive and said they keep up their symbolic efforts to keep Keiko well nourished after hearing of food shortages in the isolated nation.
They describe Keiko, the third of their six children, as a quiet child who was interested from an early age in going abroad.
“She was an obedient child who listened to her parents, but she wouldn’t give an inch on this,” 88-year-old Kayoko said in the interview last month. “She was in tears when she begged us to let her go.”
Keiko seemed to blossom when she went to London to study English after graduating from university, they said, writing home twice a month about the fun she was having and her life as an au pair. After six months, when they were expecting her home, the letters stopped.
It later turned out the young student was befriended and tricked into traveling to North Korea by a Japanese woman who belonged to the communist Red Army, Kayoko said in a 2004 book, “Keiko is Surely Alive.”
Abe first heard about the abductions in 1988, when Keiko’s parents visited the office of his politician father, Shintaro Abe, he says in his 2006 book “Toward a Beautiful Country.” That year, the Arimoto family heard via a smuggled letter that she was living with other Japanese abductees in Pyongyang.
When Abe was elected to the Diet in 1993, he resolved to do all he could to bring her and other victims home, he said in his book. At the time, it was far from a popular cause, even among members of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.
“Prime Minister Abe told me that when he raised the issue, even the LDP would jeer him,” Inoue said. “Some people even called him strange.”
For Abe, securing the release of further victims would likely pay political dividends. His support level was at 64 percent in a poll carried out by the Yomiuri newspaper Sept. 3-4, down from 74 percent in April last year. Koizumi’s backing leaped by 21 percentage points to 67 percent in a Kyodo news poll conducted the day after he met Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in September 2002.
While the Japanese government officially lists 17 people as abduction victims, the National Police Agency has a list of 883 missing people who may have been spirited away by North Korea.
“There is an extremely large number of victims, and they won’t easily be able to return those who are working in government intelligence,” said Kazuhiro Araki, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo who heads a group that investigates the kidnappings. “So not all of them will come home. However, returning some of them would be progress.”
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.