With the summer deadline approaching and no major update from North Korea in sight on the fate of Japanese nationals it abducted decades ago, some of the victims’ relatives are expressing their disappointment in Pyongyang’s investigation.
Senior officials from Japan and North Korea held talks in Sweden last May, at which point Pyongyang agreed to launch a special investigation into the abductees’ whereabouts, raising hopes among their family members that momentum would build for a breakthrough on the issue.
Shigeo Iizuka is the 76-year-old brother of abductee Yaeko Taguchi, who disappeared in 1978 at the age of 22 and whose fate remains unknown. He thought that while it might be difficult for all of the abductees to quickly return to Japan, the probe could serve as a “trigger” that would pave the way for their eventual return.
He now feels let down by North Korea. Japan eased some of its unilateral sanctions against Pyongyang in return for the investigation. But the North Korean regime has failed to deliver on its promise to make an initial progress report, which Japanese officials had originally hoped to see in late summer or early autumn last year.
“All I got from the government when I asked about the progress was: ‘We’ve been asking (North Korea) to report back swiftly,’ ” Iizuka said during a recent interview.
“However, our ultimate goal is not to get (North Korea) to produce a report but to win the return of all victims,” said Iizuka, who heads a group of the abductees’ families.
His younger sister went missing in June 1978, leaving behind a 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. North Korean agent Kim Hyon Hui, who is responsible for the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner, has said she received language training from a Japanese woman in North Korea who later turned out to be Taguchi.
In 2002, five of the 17 Japanese nationals officially listed by Tokyo as abductees returned to Japan after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi went to Pyongyang. Japan suspects North Korea may have been involved in many more disappearances.
Pyongyang has long maintained that eight abductees, including Taguchi, have died and the four people suspected of being abducted never entered the country. The current investigation is supposed to include not only the unreturned abductees but other missing Japanese, including those who stayed on in what is now North Korea after World War II and the remains of Japanese who died there around the end of the war.
Taguchi’s son, Koichiro Iizuka, now 38, is doubtful about the effectiveness of the wide-ranging probe, and fears that North Korea will continue to drag its feet on releasing information about the fate of the officially listed abductees.
“The government may have to consider another tactic to break the impasse,” he said. “Let’s be honest here. I think the (abduction issue) can be resolved if the government is serious about it. They cannot solve it because they are not serious about rescuing (the abductees).”
Japan and North Korea held working-level talks in Pyongyang in late October, but no formal talks have taken place since then.
Koichiro Iizuka has no memories of his mother, who would be 60 in August if she is still alive. He was raised by Shigeo Iizuka after she disappeared, and refers to her as “Yaeko-san.”
“It doesn’t feel right to call someone ‘mother’ when I don’t know her face and I’ve never talked to her,” he said.