North Korea Blamed for Missing Japanese

June 10, 2002 -- Akihiro and Kayoko Arimoto are an elderly Japanese couple in the twilight of their lives, who say they have one wish before they pass away: They want to see their daughter again.

The Arimotos have not seen their daughter Keiko for almost two decades, since she disappeared at the age of 23 while studying in Europe. And they have been pleading with their government for just as long to do something about their loss.

But the story of the Arimotos, and up to 70 other families of missing persons, is a little different.

That's because these families believe their loved ones were abducted by Japan's reclusive neighbor North Korea, as part of the totalitarian state's espionage program.

They believe North Korea took their loved ones to steal their identities for international travel, to help train its spies in Japanese customs, or to be brainwashed and become spies themselves.

And because Japan gave more than 1.1 million tons of food aid to famine-stricken North Korea between 1995 and 2000, they believe their government already has the leverage it needs to find out exactly what happened. Japan ended food aid in 2001, but the families say it can also impose sanctions.

Kayoko Arimoto, 76, told reporters in March that every day is difficult, and that she thinks about her daughter every day.

She also appealed to Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, speaking for herself, and her 73-year-old husband: "We are getting old, so I want my daughter back before it's too late."

Megumi Yao Speaks

The Arimotos and a number of other families have been struggling for years to convince their government to put pressure on Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but only recently has their cause gained national attention.

Read about the missing and how they disappeared.

The most recent event was the testimony of Megumi Yao, the former wife of a hijacker for the leftist Japanese Red Army faction, who helped force a Japan Air Lines jet to Pyongyang in 1970.

In a Tokyo court, Yao testified that Takamaro Tamiya, the leader of the hijacking, instructed her and other hijackers' wives to trick Japanese in Europe and lure them to North Korea, where they were to take part in the Japanese Red Army faction's attempted resurgence in Japan.

In 1983, Yao said she befriended Arimoto and lured her from London to Copenhagen with the promise of a job with a trading company.

Arimoto had been in London since April 1982 studying English, but on the day of her planned return in August 1983, she sent a telegraph to her parents, saying: "I have a job opportunity. I'll delay my return."

The next time her parents heard from her was in a postcard from Copenhagen, Denmark. It would also be the last.

Yao, 46, was quoted by police officials as saying: "I took Keiko Arimoto out of Copenhagen and handed her over to North Korean agents."

"I was a member of a group that took her to North Korea," she said.

Once in Pyongyang, Yao said she believed Arimoto was forced to marry a Japanese man who had also been lured there.

"I am responsible for destroying the life of Arimoto," Yao said. "I have brought about tremendous pain on her as well as her parents. I did something unforgivable for a human being."

Yao's testimony came during the trial of the wife of another accused leftist hijacker who was arrested on suspicion of passport violations when she returned to Japan from Pyongyang last summer.

The Hand of the Great Leader

The Arimotos have been convinced that their daughter was in North Korea since 1988, after the family of another Japanese tourist who disappeared from Spain in 1980 received a letter that said he and Arimoto were living in North Korea.

Speaking to reporters after Yao's testimony, Arimoto's father said: "I think the confession provides a good opportunity for the government to seriously try to rescue them all."

But the issue of the missing Japanese had been thrust into the public arena since 1997, when then-Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto re-opened the case of 13-year-old Megumi Yokota, who disappeared in 1977 from a beach facing North Korea.

Hashimoto never said she was kidnapped by North Korea, but pledged to ask Pyongyang about the incident in bilateral talks.

The Japanese government has since stated that it officially believes at least 11 of its nationals have been kidnapped by North Korea, and has outlined an interagency task force to study the abductions.

North Korea has denied any hand in the kidnappings. Pyongyang and the North Korean Red Cross have sporadically offered to look for what it terms the "missing Japanese," but also abandoned the search at times when it felt it was being provoked. One such instance happened earlier this year, when Japanese police arrested officers of a bank suspected of funneling millions of dollars to the communist state.

North Korea has also blamed a reactionary media and ultra-right forces for stirring up the issue.

One major factor in the diplomatic logjam is the suspicion that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Il, may have been directly involved in it.

The kidnappings began in the late 1970s when Kim started to take over control of the country's espionage efforts, said Yoshitaka Fukui, an executive of the private volunteer organization, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea.

"Many expect he himself has been involved," Fukui said. "He is the mastermind of this project."

The kidnappings are believed to have stopped in 1978, Fukui said, after a failed kidnapping attempt by four suspected agents.

Reading the Tea Leaves

Families of the missing took Pyongyang's offer to look for the missing as an implicit sign that their loved ones were in North Korea, and Fukui said Pyongyang had now turned to a "tit for tat" strategy.

By offering to look for the Japanese, Fukui said, Pyongyang had basically abandoned the strategy of denying they were responsible for the missing Japanese.

This issue has been a major issue preventing the normalization of relations between Japan and North Korea since the two countries began talks in 1991. But instead of addressing the issue, Fukui said, Pyongyang has countered by demanding compensation from Tokyo for Japan's colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.

A number of Japanese news media outlets said North Korean diplomats have hinted to their Japanese counterparts that at least one of the missing is alive, but two are dead. It's believed the one who is alive is Keiko Arimoto, and two who are dead are Hiroshi Kume and Tadaaki Hara.

Learn about the missing and how they disappeared.

Kume was 52 when he disappeared in 1977, and Hara was 49 when he disappeared in 1980. They are the oldest people on the list of missing Japan officially suspects were kidnapped by North Korea.

It was unclear how the men died. The fate of the others was also unclear.

Fukui said he was hopeful that some of the families of the missing might be able to talk to their loved ones as early as this year. "Now the Japanese government has shown a very firm stance so I think its impossible for them to touch this issue anymore," he said.

Fukui's colleague, Yoichi Shimada, a one-time resident of a coastal area from which two people were abducted, said the situation was more desperate, and required more desperate measures.

"Abducting foreign citizens from foreign soil is clearly an act of war, that means we should act accordingly," he said. He thought Japan would be justified in undertaking military action to reclaim the missing Japanese, but claimed officials were "spineless."

But he also recognized that Japanese officials face a higher bar in terms of undertaking military action, because Japan's post-war constitution strictly limits its military's function to self-defense.

Both men acknowledged that a certain momentum was building though, and that there was more hope to be found in the current administration than any that had come before.

In a recent speech, Japan's Prime Minister Koizumi said: "The problem involves not only the family members, but the whole state of Japan."

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