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The death Friday of Shigeru Yokota, the father of Megumi Yokota, who became the face of the abductees taken by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s, will deal a devastating blow to the families who have been fighting for decades to get their loved ones back.

Yokota, who was 87, was at the forefront of a movement to pressure the government into retrieving 17 confirmed abductees. Megumi was abducted in 1977 while walking home from school in a village on the coast of Niigata Prefecture when she was 13.

But with many of their family members getting old and the government distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, economic problems and other concerns competing for lawmakers’ attention, time is running out on the issue, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has often declared to be one of his highest priorities.

Yokota’s “passing will likely draw increased interest for a brief time as people seek to learn why he was so critical to the movement and what he did,” said Sandra Fahy, an expert on North Korean human rights who teaches at Sophia University in Tokyo.

But Fahy said this was unlikely to bolster the movement and could instead encourage Tokyo to put the issue on the back burner.

“It will be easier for the Japanese government to take weaker action with protest voices diminishing,” she said.

In a joint statement Friday evening, Yokota’s wife, Sakie, and their sons Takuya and Testuya, confirmed his death.

“Up until now, my husband and I have worked hard to bring back Megumi, who was abducted to North Korea. We’ve received encouragement and support from many, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” the statement said. “But my husband succumbed before he got to see Megumi. We can’t sort out our feelings.”

Other family members and former abductees mourned Yokota’s passing.

“As the abductee rescue movement plods along, it was inevitable for a situation like this to emerge sooner or later,” Shigeo Iizuka, who heads a group representing abductees’ families, wrote Friday on Facebook. “We’ve taken an active part in the movement while being prepared for that. That’s why we’ve been advocating for the victims’ return as soon as possible, while family members are still healthy. It’s deeply saddening.”

Hitomi Soga, who was repatriated in 2002, read out a letter to Yokota at a news conference Saturday, saying she had saved her life.

“I wish I could have helped him and Megumi reunite,” Soga said. “I wish I could have helped them talk to each other, but now that’s no longer possible. If I were to describe my feelings right now, they’re sad, frustrated and heartbroken. Many emotions are running inside my head.”

Yokota is the second high-profile death associated with the movement this year. In February, Kayoko Arimoto, the mother of Keiko Arimoto, who was kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1983, died at the age of 94.

The Yokotas became central figures in the movement. In 1997 they established a key group representing family members of abductees. The couple, along with other families, have persistently raised the issue and continued to pressure the government to facilitate the return of those still held in the isolated country.

As part of an operation to train spies to master the Japanese language, North Korea embarked on a clandestine plan to spirit away Japanese nationals in the 1970s and early 1980s.

In 2002, North Korea admitted it had snatched 13 Japanese, contradicting Tokyo’s assessment that 17 were abducted. Then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il agreed to let five return but claimed that eight, including Megumi Yokota, had died and that four on Tokyo’s list never set foot in the country.

On Friday night, Shinzo Abe expressed his condolences for being unable to retrieve Megumi before Yokota’s death, calling the news “gut-wrenching” and vowing to continue to press North Korea for the swift return of those abducted.

Despite the Abe administration’s prioritization of the abduction issue, little substantial progress has been made in recent years, with Tokyo and Pyongyang going back and forth on various investigations into the abductions and the North’s demand to lift sanctions.

The abduction issue has also taken a backseat in the international community as North Korea has continued to adopt an increasingly provocative stance by firing off improved missiles and carrying out nuclear tests.

Upon a visit to Tokyo last year, U.S. President Donald Trump pledged to work with Abe to secure the remaining abductees’ return.

In June 2018, Trump became the first U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader when he sat down with Kim Jong Un for talks. The pair have since met two more times, stoking expectations that a deal on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula could be reached — and lead to a breakthrough on the abduction issue as well.

But after the initial fanfare, the talks have stalled, with Trump shifting his attention elsewhere.

Abe himself seized on the momentum provided by the Trump-Kim meetings, making clear that he was ready to meet Kim without preconditions. Pyongyang, however, has largely ignored his appeals.

Nevertheless, Japan will likely continue to press for the resolution of the abduction issue, Sophia University’s Fahy said, noting that one route could be for Tokyo to cooperate with Seoul on the issue.

“Given that (the) ROK has far greater numbers of nationals who have been abducted to the DPRK, they would do well to align with the ROK to strengthen the movement,” she said, referring to South and North Korea by their formal names, the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, respectively.

That, however, appears unlikely in the immediate future as the two neighbors remain mired in a bitter standoff over historical issues and trade.

Staff writer Jesse Johnson contributed to the story.

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