Girls 'kidnapped by North Korea to teach Japanese'

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The Independent Online

Until she disappeared, suddenly and bizarrely, Keiko Arimoto was a typical represent- ative of the young Japanese woman abroad. Like thousands of others, she travelled to London to spend a year studying English. She had the conversation classes in west London; she had the British home-stay family, and the Princess Diana haircut.

That was 1983 and she was a little more isolated perhaps, lonelier than most, but when Megumi Yao became her friend, her life took a definite turn for the better. Then came the exciting job offer, and the trip to Copenhagen, and after that no one heard of Keiko Arimoto again for years.

Yesterday, Ms Yao sat weeping in a Japanese courtroom, describing how Ms Arimoto had been spirited away to North Korea, the most frightening and repressive country in the world, where she has been held incommunicado since.

"Miss Arimoto was blameless," Ms Yao said yesterday. "I tricked her and I blighted her whole life. I did something which can never be forgiven." Thirteen years after the Cold War came to an end, Keiko Arimoto and a handful of Japanese like her, are among its last remaining victims.

Her story begins with a group of radical Japanese students known as the Red Army Faction, who achieved a brief notoriety 30 years ago with a series of terrorist attacks. After a hijacking in 1970, a group of them ended up in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, where they were given sanctuary by its Stalinist government. Over the years, several young left-wing women travelled to Pyongyang to become their wives, among them Ms Yao.

In the late Seventies, the North Koreans began abducting Japanese from remote beaches along the lonely Japan Sea coast. A 13-year-girl, Megumi Yokata, disappeared on her way home from school in 1977, and 20 years later a North Korean defector revealed that she had been taken to Pyongyang.

The abductees were used to teach Japanese to North Korean infiltration agents, or brainwashed as the spearhead of an intended revolutionary take-over of Japan. Then the former hijackers had the idea of targeting Japanese abroad.

Ms Yao was duly sent to London where she enrolled at the same English school as Keiko Arimoto. "I became friends with two other Japanese girls there," she said yesterday. "Arimoto seemed the most suitable because she was the only one without a boyfriend or good friends."

The two became close and when the classes came to an end, Ms Yao told Ms Arimoto about a job opportunity doing "market research" for a trading company in North Korea. Excitedly, she wrote to her parents in Kobe: "This could be my first step into grown-up life."

The two Japanese women flew to Copenhagen, where they met a former Red Army hijacker and a North Korean agent posing as employees of the fictional trading company. The next day, Ms Arimoto flew to Moscow, then to Pyongyang, with the North Korean spy.

"I told her I would follow her there later," Ms Yao said. "But I lied to her. It is unforgivable."

Nothing was heard until 1988, when a family in northern Japan received a postcard from their son, who had also gone missing in the early Eighties while on holiday in Spain. The card – marked Pyongyang, but posted in Poland – reported amazing news: the missing man was living in North Korea "for various reasons", with Keiko Arimoto. Since then, nothing had been heard of either of them.

Keiko is the 11th Japanese believed by the Japanese government to be held against their will in North Korea. But in no other case have the circumstances of her abduction been documented in such detail, by an active participant and under oath.

Ms Yao's evidence came in the trial of another of the wives of the Red Army hijackers, who returned to Japan last year, and was charged with passport and document violations.

After the court hearing yesterday, Keiko's elderly parents spoke of their hope that they would finally be reunited with their now 41-year-old daughter.

"The most important thing now is for the Japanese government and police to take a positive attitude to bringing her home," her father, Akihiro Arimoto, said.

But what such action might amount to is very difficult to say. Japanese public opinion is deeply moved by the plight of the abductees' parents. When officials from the two countries meet, the Japanese are obliged to raise the subject, to the irritation of those diplomats in Tokyo who would rather let the past be past and press on with establishing diplomatic relations. So far, the North Korean reaction has always been the same; rage, affront and indignant denials.

The Japanese have a certain amount of diplomatic leverage: the economic aid which Pyongyang desperately needs. But North Korean pride is never to be underestimated and the more time that passes, the less likely, it seems, that the missing 11 will be produced.

One other detail is known about Keiko Arimoto, a photograph, smuggled out of North Korea, of a baby she had with her abductee husband. This is the grandchild her parents have never seen.

"Keiko must be so sorry she ignored my advice to come straight home from England," her mother, Kayoko, said. "I just hope I have the chance to see her, and hold in my arms once before I die."

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