• Kyodo

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The relatives of the Japanese abducted by North Korean agents decades ago are again calling publicly for the government to bring them back, holding onto hope even in the face of growing provocations from a stubborn communist country making ever faster progress on developing nuclear weapons.

The group of abductees’ families is headed by Shigeo Iizuka, whose younger sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was kidnapped in 1978 at age 22. Iizuka said at a gathering in Tokyo on Friday ahead of the group’s 20th anniversary Saturday that it hopes to see all of the victims return “this year.”

The group, which comprises eight families including the elderly parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted 40 years ago at age 13, has worked tirelessly to keep the public aware of the issue since its founding on March 25, 1997.

Japan officially lists 17 nationals as abductees but suspects North Korea’s involvement in even more disappearances. Five were repatriated in 2002 under an initiative led by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

“We have not realized the return of any (abductee) since the return of five in 2002, and it is the greatest regret that we cannot find a concrete path (toward resolution). I apologize from the bottom of my heart,” Katsunobu Kato, the minister in charge of the abduction issue, said at Friday’s gathering.

“Twenty years since the group’s launch and 40 years after (the first) abduction, why can’t we rescue them? I want to question who is responsible,” Iizuka, 78, said at a news conference Thursday. “I am determined to lead as long as I can move. I cannot stop my activities to rescue them.”

But no breakthrough is on the horizon as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe continues to pressure the hermit state on abandoning its nuclear and missile development programs.

Japan recently agreed to maintain close cooperation with the United States as Washington reviews its policy on North Korea to include military options.

Last year, North Korea launched more than 20 ballistic and other missiles and conducted two nuclear tests. This year it launched a ballistic missile in February and test-fired four missiles nearly simultaneously toward Japan earlier this month.

“If Japan leans toward conducting dialogue with North Korea, it could send a message that Japan tolerates North Korea’s nuclear and missile developments,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.

In May 2014, Japan and North Korea reached an accord in Stockholm on principles for negotiating a settlement on outstanding issues, including the abduction issue. Japan relaxed its sanctions on North Korea, which in turn promised another full-scale investigation into the abductions.

But North Korea repeatedly postponed its first report on the investigation results. It then disbanded its investigation team and suspended the probe after Japan imposed further sanctions in February last year in reaction to its fourth nuclear test.

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