KOFU, YAMANASHI PREF. - It has been more than 30 years since the identical twin sister of Japanese teacher Misa Morimoto vanished, believed to have been abducted by North Korea.
Hopes for her return have often surged and ebbed since, tracing the ups and downs of ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Now Morimoto, 54, is cautiously optimistic that a planned summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12 could bring news of the sister who resembled her so much that few could tell them apart.
In 2002, North Korea admitted it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train them as spies. Five returned to Japan, though Tokyo suspects hundreds more may have been taken.
In 2014, Pyongyang promised new information about the Japanese it had kidnapped, but never made good on the pledge, shattering many relatives’ hopes.
“Four years ago, we all expected everybody would soon come home, and we ended up despairing,” Morimoto told Reuters at the home where she grew up with her sister, Miho, in the city of Kofu.
“So this time, rather than hoping a lot, we’ll just watch to see what happens.”
Miho, who had ambitions of going to university, disappeared on June 4, 1984, after setting out for a library. Her motorbike was found at a nearby train station the next day and her handbag discovered on an isolated beach, 360 km (220 miles) away, near where two abductees were seized.
Morimoto has met other families who believed their loved ones might be in North Korea. She has been struck by the similar aspects of their accounts, such as the remote beach, and silent telephone calls to family homes cut off shortly after being answered. On some, Miho’s family had heard muffled sobs.
The agenda for the Trump-Kim summit is not known, although the U.S. president has said he hopes to start negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has urged Trump to keep the abductee issue, a key plank of the his political program, central to the talks. Trump has met the families of abductees several times and brought up the issue in speeches.
U.S. pressure could make a difference, Morimoto said, citing three U.S. citizens held in North Korea who were freed in May.
“To be honest, when Trump became president, I was worried what might happen. But he is a very clear, straightforward person, so his message is probably very easy for North Korea to understand.”
For years, Morimoto has awaited word of her sister. A special education teacher with three grown children, she has just became a grandmother.
“The stress can be very bad,” she said. “But if I give up, if I lose hope, everything will be over. I have to hold on to hope no matter what happens.”