Shigeo Iizuka, who served for 14 years as the head of a group representing families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, died early Saturday morning. He was 83.
Due to poor health, Iizuka stepped down from the post last week, transferring leadership to Takuya Yokota, the younger brother of abductee Megumi Yokota, who has long been seen as a symbolic figure among those taken by North Korea.
A native of Tokyo, Iizuka, whose younger sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was abducted by North Korea, headed the group from 2007, succeeding Yokota's father, Shigeru, who was its first leader.
Yokota's sister, Megumi, was kidnapped while on her way home from school at the age of 13 in 1977, while Taguchi was abducted at age 22 in 1978.
"I'm truly sorry that he passed away without reuniting with his sister," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said, "I'm filled with intense remorse as we failed to bring his sister back while he was alive and realize their reunion in Japan." Matsuno is also the minister in charge of the abductions issue.
Shigeru Yokota resigned due to health reasons after having served as the group's chief for over 10 years until November 2007. He died in June 2020 at the age of 87 without ever being reunited with Megumi.
Deaths of the group's aging leaders have underscored how its membership is slowly dwindling as many abductee relatives grow old in the decades since the disappearances.
Iizuka raised his abducted sister's son, Koichiro Iizuka, who became the secretary-general of the family group with the change of leadership last week.
During a meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida shortly after assuming the post in October, Iizuka vowed to "never give up" on settling the issue.
"It is disappointing that there has been no progress in the abduction issue despite the countless changes in prime ministers," he said.
Iizuka met with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in Tokyo when he visited the Japanese capital in 2017 and 2019 to seek U.S. cooperation to resolve the abduction issue.
The past abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents has been a major stumbling block for a peace treaty between Tokyo and Pyongyang, along with the reclusive country's nuclear and missile development.
The Japanese government officially lists 17 citizens as having been abducted by North Korean agents and suspects Pyongyang's involvement in a number of other disappearances of Japanese nationals.
Of the 17, five were repatriated in 2002 following then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit to North Korea. While Japan continues to seek the return of the remaining 12, North Korea maintains that eight have died and the other four never entered the country.
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