30 Years After Abductions, Questions Haunt Japanese

Sakie Yokota wants North Korea to remain on the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors until abductees, including her daughter, are accounted for.
Sakie Yokota wants North Korea to remain on the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors until abductees, including her daughter, are accounted for. (By Akiko Yamamoto -- The Washington Post)
By Akiko Yamamoto and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 16, 2007

NIIGATA, Japan -- Megumi Yokota was walking home from badminton practice here in Niigata, on the northern coast of Japan, when North Korean agents grabbed the 13-year-old and packed her off to a waiting ship.

That was 30 years ago.

North Korea says she is long dead, a suicide. But her parents -- and millions of Japanese -- refuse to believe it. They regard Yokota as very much alive, a woman now in midlife, deprived of her freedom in a closed communist state.

"What is she being forced to do?" asked her mother, Sakie Yokota, 71. "Why can't she come back?"

For Japan, the political potency of these anguished questions is almost impossible to overstate. The unresolved questions about Yokota and seven other Japanese have become a national obsession, a public-opinion fault line that Japanese politicians dare not cross and a formidable roadblock for diplomacy in Northeast Asia.

With North Korea emerging from its Stalinist shell and acceding to U.S. demands to disable its nuclear facilities, Japan's enduring anger over the decades-old abductions is not only blocking improved ties with North Korea but also straining relations with Japan's most important ally, the United States.

"I vow to have in mind the abduction issue as the first priority in the normalization process with North Korea," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in October after meeting families of the abductees.

Japanese officials express concern about the Bush administration's apparent willingness to remove North Korea from the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism -- without explicitly linking that removal to progress on the abduction issue.

Japanese officials have said removing North Korea from the list would gloss over that country's continuing terrorist activities and human rights abuses, while undermining Japan's efforts to bring the abductees home.

"The U.S.-Japan relationship is changing because of the abduction issue," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, professor of North Korea studies at Tokyo's Waseda University. "Japan is thinking the United States doesn't think the abductions are important and that we are losing our common values."

The number of Japanese who believe Japan and the United States are not on good terms has risen nine percentage points in the past year, to 20.4 percent, the highest in a decade, according to a government opinion poll released last week.

While the Bush administration has begun delivering fuel to North Korea, Japan says it will not take part in any economic or energy assistance unless it gets a detailed, credible explanation of what happened to its kidnapped citizens.

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