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A Chilling Tale Of Ordinary Japanese Abducted By North Korean Spies

North Korea, 2012
North Korea, 2012
François Bougon

AGEO - Shigeo Iizuka still has the black-and-white photo of his little sister, Yaeko, stuck on the inside cover of his pocket diary. It was June 1978, when the 22-year-old suddently disappeared, taken from the bustling heart of Tokyo and transferred to North Korea to be used as a teacher of Japanese language and customs for the spies of Kim Jong-il, the son of the leader of the time, Kim Il-sung.

"No one can imagine the tragedy that we have been through. I still yearn for the years I spent with my sister," sighs Iizuka, a Japanese engineer who is still working at the age of 75.

Sitting in a quaint restaurant in Ageo, a town in Tokyo's sprawling suburbs, he looks down at the photo of the young woman – she looks sad, her face framed by her long hair. At the time, she was working as a waitress in a bar in Tokyo's Ikebukuro neighborhood. She was divorced and had two young children. After he learned of his sister's disappearance, Iizuka rushed to her apartment. Everything seemed to be in order. Yaeko had left no note, no trace. She would come back, he told himself. However, one week passed, then one month, then two, and still she had not returned. Thirty-four years have now gone by.

Iizuka decided to adopt Yaeko's son, while another sister took on the young daughter. The secret was kept in the family. Their cousins were told to never let it slip. "They kept their promise for 20 years," Iizuka explains, up until the day when Yaeko's son, aged 21, needed his birth certificate to get a passport to go to the United Kingdom. That’s when he understood that he had been adopted.

Seeking help from the police was of no use. At the time, Yaeko was merely one more disappearance – they made no enquiries. The truth finally emerged in November 1987 when a North Korean spy, Kim Hyon-hui, was arrested in Bahrain for bombing a Korean Air aircraft, flying from Iraq to South Korea. The 115 passengers on board and the airline staff were all killed. Thanks to a copy of the black and white photo of Yaeko that the police had been given by the family, Kim Hyon-hui was able to identify her "teacher," who had taught her how to blend in as a Japanese native. Yaeko had taught her the manners and customs of her native land, and given her lessons on Japanese cinema, music and fashion.

"As Kim Hyon-hui had lived with her for 20 months - from July 1981 to March 1983 - she had confided in her about numerous things: like how she had cried every night when thinking about her children. Kim had told her that she had to accept her destiny," says Iizuka, who had difficulty believing this incredible story at first, he admits.

"In the bar where she was working, Yaeko was approached a few times by two or three men, seemingly spies. They offered to take her to North Korea for a few days and she had accepted. That's what North Korea said - in 2002 - but I don't believe it. She would never have agreed because of her two young children. It's a lie," her brother says, who now runs the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN), created in 1997. Two years before Yaeko was abducted, in 1976, in the middle of the Cold War, North Korea's number one Kim Il-sung had decided on a change of direction for the communist regime's espionage campaign. The defining word was "localization" - by abducting foreigners, especially South Koreans and Japanese people, it would be possible to infiltrate the countries to put in place an efficient network of spies.

Officially, Japanese authorities have reported 17 proven cases of Pyongyang abducting its citizens between 1977 and 1983. However, AFVKN and another association, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN), have much higher figures.

A formal acknowledgment

The youngest reported victim was Megumi Yokota, kidnapped at the age of 13 in November 1977, while on her way back from school in the Japanese seaside town of Niigata. The eldest was 52 years old. For many years, Japan seemed hardly interested in these disappearances, even when the truth emerged that North Korea was involved.

"There were families that would protest outside government, even though they knew of the potential risks it could represent for their loved ones in North Korea. But the apathy of the government pushed them to act and to appear in public," says Tsutomu Nishioka, president of NARKN.

They would have to wait until September 2002 for a change in policy. During the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's historic visit to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il – who succeeded Kim Il-sung in 1994 – surprised everyone by recognizing that North Korea had, in fact, abducted Japanese citizens. However, even if Pyongyang considers the case closed after having admitted to 13 kidnappings – five of them returned to Japan 10 years ago, while the eight others supposedly died in North Korea – on the other side of the Sea of Japan, the affair has not stopped to gather importance, thus preventing a normalization in relations between the two countries.

According to Japan, North Korea's lies only add doubt to their version of events. Until proven otherwise, Tokyo says, the missing persons are still alive and, if they do not return or there is no concrete evidence of their deaths, no normalization of relations will be possible.

Conservative politicians, such as the current head of opposition Shinzo Abe, have taken up the cause of the victims' families. During his brief term as Prime Minister between 2006 and 2007, Abe placed the affair at the center of the government's action plan by creating a specific team, made up of various government ministers, devoted to the issue of abductions. A ministerial portfolio was also created. In June 2006, a law was adopted, dedicated to the annual organization, between December 10 and 16, of an awareness week of the "human rights violations committed by North Korea."

The face of Megumi Yokota is now plastered everywhere in Japan, while manga and animated films retrace her story, fuelling the fight for the return of the abductees.

Since Kim Jong-un"s accession to power at the beginning of this year, Tokyo and Pyongyang have reopened discussions – the first in over four years, when talks were first halted because of North Korea's second nuclear test and launch of ballistic missiles. Initial talks between diplomats were held in Beijing, lasting seven hours; however, a solution to the issue has not progressed – for the moment, at least.

Bringing the living home

"The first issue discussed was about the remains of the Japanese soldiers who died in North Korea during the war. Of course, we think that it is important, but the priority should be about the Japanese people who are still alive. With these meetings, Japan has to put the issue of the abductions on the top of the list; it must be the priority," says Shigeo Iizuka.

Tsutomu Nishioka, the president of NARKN, is not holding out too much hope in regard to how much success these negotiations can bring: "It's important to send them a message: We have to bring the living home, that's the message that we have to send to this young Kim," he stresses. The Japanese and the North Koreans met up once more in November in Mongolia, with not much more success.

Japan still does not believe North Korea's official version of events, and is demanding an investigation, before any normalization of relations can begin. Pyongyang, on the other hand, denounces Tokyo for politicizing the affair. In Beijing, it's the Foreign Ministry who has led official discussions. At the same time, the civil servants working on the case have traveled to the Chinese capital and met with one of the North Korean negotiators, bumping into him in a restaurant. Tokyo says that this was a mere coincidence. However, according to one source close to the case, this behavior is common and useful in "constructing a personal relationship with the spokespersons," in order to obtain certain information.

At the beginning of October, before the 10th anniversary of her return to Japan, Hitomi Soga, who spent 24 years in North Korea, launched a petition to bring back the abductees, one of whom is her mother. "I am incredibly frustrated, because there has hardly been any progress on the issue of the kidnappings," she deplored.

Yaeko's brother is frustrated too, and growing old, but he still has hope he will see his sister -- if the both governments make it a priority: "We are saying to the Japanese and North Korean governments: all the abductees must come home."

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Photo of a woman working at a motorbike factory in China's Yunnan Province.

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