For years, a mystery has poisoned relations between North Korea and Japan: Did North Korea carry out a series of kidnappings over two decades to force Japanese citizens to live in the Stalinist state?
A partial answer came in testimony Tuesday in a Tokyo court. The ex-wife of a member of a Japanese radical group, the Red Army, testified that she helped lure a young Japanese woman from Europe to the North Korean capital in 1983 as part of a scheme to recruit spouses and members for a faction of the group based in North Korea.
"The assignment was to scout for and detain Japanese, and train them into core members of a revolution," Megumi Yao testified, according to news reports. She said she was instructed to "find not only men, but women" of marriageable age.
Yao, 46, described how she and other spouses of the nine-member Red Army faction, who lived in North Korea after hijacking a Japan Airlines jet in 1970, scoured Europe seeking recruits.
She met Keiko Arimoto, a 23-year-old who had gone to London to study English, and lured her with the possibility of a job with a trading company. A North Korean diplomat stationed in Zagreb posed as the company president, she testified.
Arimoto agreed to fly to Pyongyang to investigate the fictitious job. Yao implied she was forced to stay there. The young woman's parents later heard that she was married to another Japanese in North Korea, apparently one of two men who disappeared in Spain in 1980.
"I did something unforgivable," Yao told the court. "I am responsible for destroying the life of Arimoto."
Although Yao's testimony involved only one case, Japanese police have added two other missing persons cases to the list of alleged abductees based on information she provided. People who know her say Yao may have told investigators of dozens more.
The revelations are likely to further complicate prospects for improved relations between North Korea and Japan, which many political analysts regard as necessary if North Korea is to establish normal relations with the United States, South Korea and the rest of the world.
Washington cites Pyongyang's harboring of the Red Army faction as one reason North Korea remains on its list of states supporting terrorism, and President Bush has called the country part of an "axis of evil."
North Korea has denied kidnapping Japanese nationals, and relatives of the missing persons had long complained that Japan's Foreign Ministry was more interested in circumventing the issue than in trying to resolve it.
"Until now, the Japanese government has been very weak. The government felt we couldn't make North Korea angry," said Ryo Hagowara, an author who has written about and lived in North Korea. "Now the Japanese public will be looking at this and saying the government has to do something. I think it will force the government to change its course."
The Red Army was believed to have 30 or 40 members at its peak in the 1970s. It was suspected of a series of terrorist attacks and hijackings.
On-and-off negotiations between Japan and North Korea have been suspended since October 2000, and relations have been increasingly frosty.
Many questions about the alleged abductions were not answered by Yao, who was a witness in the trial of the ex-wife of a Red Army member charged in Tokyo District Court with passport law violations.
She did not touch on suspicions that North Korean submariners and other agents snatched Japanese from seaside areas in Japan during the 1970s. Some of those missing were children who have never been heard from.
In 1997, Japan's National Police Agency stated publicly that it believed 10 Japanese were abducted. Family members and their supporters have said the number may be 40 or 50.
But the allegations have always lacked a credible motive. Officials have said Japanese may have been abducted to teach Japanese to North Korean spies or to provide passports. But passports can be forged, and there are large numbers of Japanese who willingly live in North Korea and tens of thousands of North Koreans who live in Japan and are fluent in the language.
Yao said Japanese were brought to be spouses of the Red Army members and previous abductees, and to try to increase the size of the small group that lived in "the Japanese Revolution Village" in North Korea.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.