Kidnapped Japanese return after 24 years

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They looked nervous and shy but, given that they had just arrived from the world's most reclusive state to find themselves the best-known faces in Japan, who could blame them?

They looked nervous and shy but, given that they had just arrived from the world's most reclusive state to find themselves the best-known faces in Japan, who could blame them?

Almost a quarter of a century after being kidnapped by North Korean agents from Japan's east coast, five surviving abductees returned home yesterday to banners, bouquets, and wall-to-wall television coverage. Grainy pictures of the five, frozen in time from the late Seventies and flashed across the country as they arrived at Haneda airport in Tokyo, cruelly showed the passage of time.

Hitomi Soga, snatched as a baby-faced trainee nurse while walking home from a shopping trip with her mother in August 1978, is now 43 and has two children. Kaoru Hasuike, who was stuffed into a sack with his girlfriend, Yukiko Okuda, and smuggled to North Korea in July 1978, is 45 and gaunt. The couple wed in Pyongyang in 1980, and Mr Hasuike tearfully apologised to his father-in-law on the airport apron for "marrying your daughter without your permission".

Also returning was Yasushi Chimura, a handsome 22-year-old trainee carpenter when he was bound and shipped to Pyongyang in July 1978 with Fukie Hamamoto, who was his future wife. She also returned.

In a Tokyo hotel yesterday evening, the five, mindful of the children they were forced to leave in North Korea and that they are expected to return after about 10 days, chose their words carefully. Mr Chimura thanked the country for "worrying about him for so long". Ms Soga said she had "missed everyone in Japan." She added: "I truly wanted to see my family."

Ms Soga, who was taken from a secluded island in the Sea of Japan, married Charles Jenkins from North Carolina in 1980. He was stationed in South Korea in the 1960s and listed as a deserter by the US military. Her older brother, Yuko, said: "No matter what happens, family ties can't be broken. She was protected by the grace of God."

No questions were allowed and the five quickly left. Their relatives have bitterly complained that they are not being allowed to return for good and have said that since they could not bring their children with them they will not be able to speak freely. There are still many questions about the lives of the five and the bizarre North Korean spy-training programme they fell victim to.

What happened to at least eight other Japanese abductees who Pyongyang claims died in a catalogue of implausible disasters? Where is Ms Soga's mother, who was also kidnapped? And why were the returnees wearing badges showing the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il?

North Korea's relations with its former colonial ruler Japan have thawed significantly since an unprece- dented summit last month between the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and Mr Kim. In a surprise announcement, Mr Kim admitted at the summit on 17 September that "elements in the military" had abducted the Japanese citizens. He said it would never happen again, and that two men responsible had been severely punished.

Largely because of Mr Kim's unexpected confession, Mr Koizumi's ratings soared, but as more details emerged about the abductions, outrage in Japan spread. Mr Koizumi said yesterday: "With the temporary return of the victims, we have taken a first step toward the resolution of the abduction issue," he said. "But we still have main remaining issue to be resolved."

In the centre of the families sat Shigeru and Sakie Yokota, whose daughter, Megumi, was the youngest kidnap victim at 13 and one of those who did not return. Pyongyang claims she married and had a child before hanging herself at a mental hospital in 1993.

DNA tests have confirmed the child, now 15, is Megumi's daughter. Mr Yokota said he wanted to bring his granddaughter to Japan as soon as possible. "Of course her father is North Korean so it will be difficult, but we're going to do all we can," he said. An exhausted-looking Mrs Yokota said she believed her daughter was still alive.