TOKYO — It was one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War.

Men, women and children snatched by communist spies and bundled aboard creaking fishing boats in the most mundane circumstances: on the way home from school, on shopping trips, during a romantic stroll along a windswept beach.

Decades later, Japan is still some way off establishing the truth about North Korea’s abductions of at least 17 of its citizens, spirited away between 1977 and 1983 to the world’s most reclusive state.

There, they were employed as mentors to communist agents hoping to pass themselves off as Japanese; some were allegedly murdered so their identities could be used by spies taking part in missions on the other side of the Japan Sea.

While the rest of the world grapples for an appropriate response to modern-day North Korean security threats – a rumoured ballistic missile test in early April and the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons – Japan simply refuses to let the abduction issue die.

Not that there hasn’t been some progress. In 2002, five abductees were allowed to return home after a meeting between the then Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.

In an extraordinary mea culpa, Kim apologized for the abductions, carried out on his orders during the regime of his father, Kim Il-sung, but insisted that four of the 17 had never entered the country, and that another eight had died.

They included Megumi Yokota, who was snatched, aged 13, a few hundred yards from her home on the Japan Sea coast in November 1977, possibly after disturbing North Korean agents in the field. According to Pyongyang’s account, she married and had a child, then hanged herself in a psychiatric hospital in 1994.

Japan, though, is convinced the missing abductees are still alive, and that the North is refusing to release them because they know too much about the regime’s espionage operations.

Tokyo has warned it will never accept a nuclear deal with North Korea that excludes a satisfactory explanation of the abductees’ fates, potentially depriving the North of much-needed food and energy assistance from its wealthy neighbour as a reward for disabling its nuclear capabilities.

But Japan’s hardline approach carries a huge risk. Not only could it find itself diplomatically isolated at the talks as other countries rush to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, it could find itself at odds with its closest ally, the U.S.

Privately, other parties in the talks are irritated by Japan’s refusal to separate the abductions from the nuclear threat. And despite U.S. promises to pursue an all-encompassing resolution to the North Korean question, few expect it to allow differences over the abductions to stand in the way of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Yet no Japanese administration can afford to make concessions. The abductions have become a cause celebre among many voters, moved by frequent media coverage of distraught relatives begging for their loved ones to be released.

Now the families are pinning their hopes on the Obama administration. “International pressure against the North, particularly from the United States, is indispensable to any resolution,” they said in a recent open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

They voiced “deep disappointment” with George W. Bush’s decision to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism late last year. That he did so without consulting Japan only added to the indignation on this side of the Pacific.

Clinton was clearly aware of local sensibilities when, on a trip to Tokyo last month, she assured the families that their plight would not be forgotten. The abductions "are a matter of great concern, and the six-party talks offer the best framework in which to make progress on
this," she said.

They also offer the only hope Megumi’s mother, Sakie, has of being reunited with her daughter, more than 30 years after she left home for school one morning with a cheery "See you later."

"Imagine if your daughter had disappeared and been taken to a country like North Korea," she said.

"I can’t bear to think what it must have been like for Megumi and the other victims, crying and screaming as they were bundled onto boats. She had done nothing wrong. I can hear her crying even now. All she wants is to come home."

Other recent GlobalPost stories from Japan:

The buzz in Japan

Mr. Aso goes to Washington

Land of rising communism


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