Five kidnap victims who returned to Japan after being held for 24 years in North Korea are at the center of an increasingly bitter tug of war between the two countries.

Japan has said it is not allowing the five, who came to Japan Oct. 15 for what was supposed to be a two-week visit, to return to Pyongyang, where all have teenage or young adult children and one has a spouse.

"It's too early for us to let them make up their own mind freely," said a Japanese official, explaining the government's position.

North Korea has turned sharply critical of that stance, and diplomacy between Japan and the communist nation has soured. Promises by Japan to normalize relations with North Korea and give it economic aid have foundered on Pyongyang's attempts to develop material for a nuclear bomb, and now are further stuck over the abductee issue.

On Sept. 17, North Korea admitted to having kidnapped 13 Japanese more than two decades ago, and said all but five were dead. Those five came to Japan to visit relatives, and Pyongyang had been ambivalent about their return. But that changed this week, when North Korea berated Japan for "breaking an agreement" that the five would return, and said normalization talks would be delayed until the five rejoin their families in Pyongyang.

"They will stay in Japan," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi retorted Thursday.

Prominently missing from this debate are the voices of the abductees themselves. They have not publicly said whether they want to remain in Japan, risking separation from their families, or return to North Korea, with the chance they might not be allowed to leave the closed country again.

Apparently fearful of offending either government, the abductees have been circumspect as they stay with relatives in the hometowns they disappeared from in 1978. They have granted no individual interviews, and at news conferences, the Japanese media, which have promised not to embarrass the five, submit questions in writing.

At one such news conference today, televised from the northern island of Sado, abductee Hitomi Soga was asked about the weather, shopping and Japanese songs, but not about the government's ban on travel to see her family.

Such tentative media treatment is part of a blanket silence in Japan on the issue of restricting the abductees' return. The only media accounts of the abductees' North Korean families have met with furious criticism.

All five of the kidnapped Japanese have children raised largely as Koreans, and all five had made lives for themselves in North Korea after they were snatched from the Japanese seaside by North Korean agents.

Kaoru Hasuike, now 45, and Yukiko Okudo, 46, and another couple, Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto, both 47, were kidnapped while on beach dates, and later married in North Korea. Between them they have five children, from 15 to 21 years in age. Soga, 43, abducted while walking with her mother when she was 19, married Charles Robert Jenkins, now 62, a U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea in 1965.

The weekly magazine Shukan Kinyobi reaped a storm of condemnation today for publishing an interview with Soga's husband and two daughters in Pyongyang, in which they said they missed her. A group supporting the abductees accused the magazine of being a "dog of North Korean authorities." A local assemblyman said the magazine was acting as "an agent of North Korea," and a mainstream television network complained the magazine had "ignored the rules."

In the interview, Jenkins said he has "lived happily in Korea for 37 years. I'm a citizen of Korea; my daughters are freely studying in school. We received a car from the country. We're living without anything lacking. All I want now is my wife to come back."

Jenkins declined to discuss his desertion, but noted, "One thing I can say is, I walked to North Korea." He disappeared when he was on patrol while serving with U.S. forces near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, allegedly leaving notes saying he was defecting. Some of his relatives have insisted that he must have been forced to cross into North Korea.

Jenkins said, "I cannot go to Japan now," as U.S. officials have refused a Japanese request to give him amnesty from prosecution for leaving his army unit.

The Jenkins daughters Mika, 19, and Belinda, 17, told the magazine they had been promised that their mother would return to Pyongyang in 10 days.

"Japanese officials told us that my mother will return with lots of souvenirs," Mika was quoted as saying. "But I don't need souvenirs. I want her to come back quickly." Belinda added, "Please give our mother back."

Koizumi lashed out at the article, condemning reporters "using the freedom of the press as a shield," who "don't think about the trouble" caused by what they reported.

Three weeks ago, similar intense criticism followed a Fuji Television Network interview in Pyongyang with Kim Hye Gyong, 15, the daughter of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese woman who apparently committed suicide in Pyongyang in 1993.

The criticism is part of an unquestioning consensus by the public and the media to support the government's position. There has been almost no debate about the government's authority to prevent the abductees from returning to their families.

"Of course we respect the free will of the individual," Katsunari Suzuki, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of negotiations with North Korea, said in a recent interview. But "their state of mind is certainly not normal. We have to give time and the proper environment in which they can quietly think about their future.

"We would not agree to return them" to North Korea, he said. "They might have developed some feelings that [North Korea] is their own land."

Suzuki also said the government was demanding that Yokota's daughter be brought to Japan, leaving her Korean father. He said the girl "is considered to have Japanese nationality" because her mother was Japanese.

In a Confucian twist to the argument, the government also has said it is responding to the wishes of the abductees' families, whether or not the five abductees agree.

"What the five abductees wish is not a question. It's quite a surprise to us," noted Makoto Teranaka, an official of the Japan office of the human rights group Amnesty International, one of the few questioning the government position. "The freedom of choice is one of the human rights. But the press seems to be ignoring this issue."

In an interview today. Teranaka drew an analogy with the Elian Gonzalez case in Florida, where a federal court ordered the 6-year-old boy reunited with his father in Cuba, overruling relatives in Miami.

"That's not true democracy. I don't think democracy means that everything is free," responded Masao Kiyono, an member of the local assembly in Japan's Niigata Prefecture, where Soga was kidnapped.

Soga "was abandoned by Japan and had to spend 24 very difficult years in a foreign country," he said. "If Japan sends her back to North Korea, it means Japan will have abandoned her again. Japan should not commit a national crime twice."

Kidnap victim Hitomi Soga shops in Mano, her hometown in Japan. She is married to Charles Jenkins, a U.S. soldier who deserted to North Korea in 1965.