The girl stolen by North Korea: How Japan's abductees became pawns in the US nuclear standoff

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The Independent Online

A cruel, biting wind is blowing in from the Sea of Japan as waves crash on to the concrete breakwaters lining the shore of the Japanese fishing port of Niigata.

It was on a day like this when 13-year old Megumi Yokota vanished 30 years ago, on her way home from badminton class in the school gym, 800 yards down the road. Her disappearance set off the biggest search for a schoolgirl ever launched in Japan.

But Megumi was not alone. Investigators have confirmed that she was one of 17 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in its revolutionary zeal to reunite the Korean peninsula. They were bundled on to ships for the 500-mile journey to North Korea where they were used as language teachers for North Korean spies who then planned to infiltrate South Korea using Japanese identities to pursue their ultimate goal.

Even today, the chief superintendent of Niigata prefecture finds the notion hard to believe. As a young man at police headquarters, Masayuki Obata was involved in the search for Megumi. Now aged 54, standing outside the school gym as he prepares to retrace Megumi's last steps to the spot where she was snatched on 15 November 1977 only yards from her home, he still feels a personal responsibility. "I have a daughter too, we often speak about the Yokota case, I know what her parents must have gone through," he says.

Four other Japanese disappeared from Niigata prefecture in 1977 and 1978, a couple and a mother and daughter, who were carried in sacks to a waiting boat. Why did the police never suspect the hardline communist North Korean regime in the midst of Cold War intrigue? "Never, in our wildest dreams, would we ever have imagined that North Koreans would want to abduct Japanese citizens," he says.

Yet it turned out to be the case. In September 2002, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, stunned the world by admitting to the abduction of 15 Japanese and apologised. He told Junichiro Koizumi, who was Japan's Prime Minister, at their first summit in Pyongyang, that only five had survived. Eight – including Megumi – had died and there was no record of the two others having entered North Korea. But no proof of the deaths was forthcoming.

Five of the surviving Japanese abductees subsequently returned to Japan.

In 2006, after the fate of the stolen citizens became a national cause, Shinzo Abe, Mr Koizumi's successor as Prime Minister, confirmed that his country would not normalise relations with North Korea until the abduction issue had been resolved. But a wind of change is blowing following a landmark denuclearisation deal last October which could lead to the establishment of relations between Washington and the hermit state with which it remains technically at war.

The families fear that the Bush administration may be preparing quietly to shelve the abductee issue in the interests of a deal with North Korea that would shore up President Bush's legacy as a man of peace before he leaves office next January.

Since 2002, a fuller picture of the abductions has emerged, from witness statements, defectors and the returnees themselves.

It was dark when Megumi set out at 6.30pm on her regular 10-minute walk home, accompanied by two friends. One peeled off at the first set of traffic lights, while the other left her after they crossed the road. It was the last moment she was ever seen in Japan. During her transfer to North Korea, her bloodied fingernails were broken off in her desperate struggle to escape from her confinement in the ship.

It is now known that Megumi married a South Korean who was himself an abductee, with whom she had a daughter, Kim Hye Gyong. But although Japanese media have been allowed access to the girl, Megumi's parents, Sakie and Shigeru Yokota, have never met their grandchild.

Kaoru Hasuike and his wife Yukiko were snatched in Kashiwazaki, west of Niigata, in July 1978, after he picked her up from work for a stroll to the beach. Both were allowed to return home after 20 years in North Korea, during which they were under constant surveillance. Mr Hasuike now works as a translator of Korean novels and his wife is a dinner lady in a kindergarten.

But not all of the Japanese abductees were kidnapped in Japan. Keiko Arimoto, a 23-year- old language student enrolled on a course in London, was lured to Denmark with the promise of a market research job. Once in Copenhagen, her contact, a North Korean spy, told her that her first project was in Pyongyang.

In addition to the 15 cases acknowledged by the North Koreans, two more have been added to the Japanese list, although some estimates put the number as high as 100 or more.

Meanwhile, the official version of events remains incomplete and is strewn with lies and inconsistencies. According to Pyongyang, Megumi committed suicide in 1993 after suffering from depression. But the death certificate was a forgery. DNA tests carried out on her purported remains sent by North Korea concluded that the ashes were not hers. Nor have Japanese authorities been convinced by the official explanations of the deaths of other Japanese abductees who were said to have either died in traffic accidents or by "gas poisoning", the latter allegedly having been the fate of Ms Arimoto.

Despite two rounds of negotiations with Japanese government officials, the North Koreans are refusing to provide any more information.

Now the families are bracing themselves for more disappointment, despite a White House visit by Megumi's mother which George Bush described as "one of the most moving meetings" of his presidency. He promised then: "We will not forget the abductees."

Events such as the New York Philharmonic orchestra's ground-breaking concert this week in Pyongyang – an unprecedented exercise in musical diplomacy – will only have reinforced their fears. They sense that the scene is being set for compromise over the October agreement reached at the six-party talks involving North Korea, Japan, the US, South Korea, China and Russia.

The October declaration committed North Korea to disable all existing nuclear facilities by the end of last year, and to provide a "complete and correct" accounting for all its nuclear programmes by the same date. In return, the Bush administration promised notably to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terror, while energy and economic assistance was also pledged by the partners.

Although North Korea failed to disable its key nuclear facilities by the 31 December deadline, Japanese diplomats say this is of less concern than its failure to present its full declaration of its uranium enrichment activities. North Korea now says that the US side must lift the terror listing before it produces the declaration. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has spent this week in the region shoring up strategy on North Korea. But will George Bush forget his promise to Mrs Yokota?

Mrs Yokota, 72, says President Bush described the kidnapping of her daughter as "unforgivable". "But he is a public person, and has national interest related to the nuclear issue," she says.

Turning the pages of a family album in their Tokyo apartment block, Megumi's parents say they have not given up hope. They still believe their daughter, who would now be 43, is alive.

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