North Korea on Saturday released five children of Japanese citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, after Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi traveled to the North Korean capital and pledged food and more than $10 million in humanitarian aid to the impoverished communist country.
The five, all born in North Korea during their parents' long captivity there, flew to Tokyo aboard a Japanese airliner. Smartly dressed and wearing North Korean insignia pins on their lapels, they smiled shyly after being reunited with their parents, whom North Korean authorities allowed to return home in 2002.
The release, announced after a 90-minute meeting between Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, the capital, was a breakthrough in an emotional dispute that had captivated the Japanese public and complicated international talks on the North's production of nuclear weapons.
Speaking to reporters in Pyongyang before returning to Tokyo, Koizumi said he pressed Kim to abandon his nuclear program but won only a pledge to continue a moratorium on missile tests. He said Kim also reaffirmed the North's commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and repeated an offer to freeze the country's nuclear projects in exchange for energy aid.
"I said very strongly to Kim Jong Il that the best thing for North Korea would be to completely abandon its nuclear program," Koizumi said. "I told him he shouldn't miss this chance to become part of international society, and he should instead seize it . . . . By abandoning nuclear weapons, North Korea would in fact be safer." But Koizumi said the reclusive North Korean leader expressed uncertainty about how his nation could guarantee its security without nuclear arms.
The one-day visit was Koizumi's first to Pyongyang since his historic meeting there with Kim in September 2002. Japan ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and has no diplomatic relations with the North.
During the first session, Kim acknowledged that his government's agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to help train its spies. He said that eight had died, but that five survived and could go back to Japan.
Those five had been allowed to marry during their time in North Korea. They left eight immediate family members behind when they went home in 2002, and ever since, officials in Tokyo have been pressing for the release of the relatives, too.
The five young people, ages 16 to 22, alternately looked overwhelmed and pleased Saturday when they stepped off a bus that brought them and their parents from Haneda Airport to a Tokyo hotel.
Japanese officials predict that the five could have a difficult transition. Their parents had never told them about the abductions or their Japanese ancestry, and they were taught in school to regard Japan as an evil nation.
"At the beginning, we should let them tell us what suffering they went through" during the year and half of separation, said Fukie Chimura, 48, before seeing her son and daughter. "And then we will tell them what happened in Japan in detail."
Three relatives did not return: American-born Charles Robert Jenkins, the husband of one of the former abductees, and the couple's two daughters, Mika, 20, and Belinda, 18. Jenkins, a former U.S. Army sergeant who is accused of deserting his unit in 1965 along the Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea and defecting to the North, might face extradition and prosecution in the United States if he returned to Japan.
Koizumi said Kim was willing to let Jenkins and his children leave the country, but that the three told him in an hour-long meeting that they preferred to stay. "Jenkins was very concerned that if he went to Japan he would be handed over to America," Koizumi said. "I said I would make the best efforts for them to live as a family in Japan, but Jenkins wasn't persuaded." Instead, Koizumi said he is arranging for Jenkins's wife, Hitomi Soga, to meet him and their two children in a third country, possibly China. He said Kim had agreed.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Soga said Saturday that she was willing to meet her husband in China, but "however much time it takes, I want eventually all four of us to live in Japan."
Japan has asked the Bush administration several times to grant Jenkins a pardon to make it easier for him to leave North Korea, but the requests have been denied thus far, diplomats said. In a statement, Howard Baker, U.S. ambassador to Japan, congratulated Koizumi but said nothing about Jenkins.
Koizumi said he pledged to provide 250,000 tons of rice and $10 million worth of medical supplies and other aid to North Korea, one of the world's most isolated and impoverished countries. Asked whether the aid was payment for the release of the children, Koizumi said no, adding that "it is the responsibility of the international community to aid North Korea." Some people in Japan faulted Koizumi for failing to clarify what happened to the eight abductees that officials in Pyongyang have said are dead or to clarify the whereabouts of two other Japanese citizens believed kidnapped but not acknowledged by the North.
Koizumi said Kim agreed to reopen an investigation, with Japanese participation, but relatives reacted angrily to that. "Only North Korea benefited from this," said Shigeru Yokota, 71, whose daughter Megumi was 13 when she was abducted in 1977 and whom North Korean officials have declared to be dead.
Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency, which usually vilifies Japan, issued a warm statement praising the summit.
Pan reported from Beijing.