Five of at least 13 known Japanese nationals who were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s returned home on Tuesday aboard a government-chartered plane. But their family reunions — the first since they disappeared in the summer of 1978 — will be temporary; they are scheduled to return to North Korea after a short stay of a week or two in their hometowns in Niigata and Fukui prefectures.

We hope that they will enjoy their time in Japan after an absence of 24 years, and can forget for the moment the difficult and trying lives they must have led in the reclusive dictatorial state. At the very least, we hope that they will appreciate the warmth of family life and the nature of their birthplaces during their brief sojourns.

Their homecoming, however temporary, attests to a warming of North Korea’s attitude toward Japan. At the Sept. 17 summit meeting in Pyongyang, Mr. Kim Jong Il admitted for the first time that North Korean agents had abducted Japanese citizens, and offered an apology. Later, Pyongyang agreed, responding to a Japanese demand, to allow the five surviving abductees to return home for family reunions.

However, that represents only a small step forward. The five — two couples and a woman married to an American, all in their 40s — have left their children behind. That is a sure sign that North Korea wants them to come back. A female abductee whom North Korea claims is dead, Ms. Megumi Yokota, is survived by her daughter. The girl lives in Pyongyang.

North Korean authorities are probably keeping a close watch on what the five returnees do or say while in Japan. The Japanese government, therefore, needs to take every possible precaution to ensure that they and their children do not meet any unwarranted pressure or intervention during their stays here.

The family reunions are also overshadowed by the grim revelations that at least eight abductees are dead. Pyongyang claims that they died from illness and accidents in North Korea. In the absence of conclusive evidence, however, their families hope they are alive. The Japanese investigation into their fates has only just started; the police have their work cut out.

The investigation, however, depends largely on the extent of North Korean cooperation. So far, Pyongyang has provided only piecemeal information about the known abductions. It remains unclear who carried out the abductions, how these acts of inhumanity were committed and what disciplinary or punitive actions Pyongyang has taken against the abductors. Questions also remain about the North Korean claims that eight abductees died from ailments and disastrous accidents.

North Korea says 14 Japanese nationals were abducted. The number is not final. The actual number could be much higher. A Japanese group supporting the abductees and their families believes dozens have been kidnapped. A U.S. State Department report puts the maximum figure at 20.

The National Police Agency reportedly intends to interview the five surviving abductees through local police, providing that they are willing to talk. It is doubtful, however, whether such police questioning, however voluntary, will produce any substantial evidence, given that the abductees’ children are held hostage, as it were, back in North Korea. Therefore, police must exercise the utmost caution.

Negotiation with North Korea, a dictatorship, is always unpredictable. Previously, Pyongyang had hinted that it would accept visits to North Korea by the abductees’ families. Then it abruptly informed Tokyo that it would allow the survivors to return home temporarily. And it kept secret the timing of their return until the last moment.

As ever with North Korea, it is difficult to fathom its real intentions. There is little doubt, however, that it wants to expedite normalization talks with Japan to rebuild its battered economy. It is also reasonably clear that North Korea has no choice but to respond positively to mounting public opinion in Japan calling for a full investigation.

But there is also suspicion that in offering vital information on a piecemeal basis, Pyongyang may be keeping its diplomatic cards up its sleeve. It is impermissible to use the abduction issue — a human rights issue — as a bargaining chip. With the normalization talks resuming late this month, it may be that North Korea wants to play up its conciliatory stance.

The survivors’ brief return home, welcome as it is, is a sobering reminder that there is still a long way to go before the abduction cases are really resolved. “Welcome home” is the national greeting for the five returnees. The greeting will have its true meaning when they come home with their children on a permanent basis.

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