Ahead of Trump-Kim summit, Japanese abductees' families push US to help secure their release

PHOTO: Takuya Yokota,left, and Koichiro Iizuka, right, hold up photos of their sister and mother, respectively, who were allegedly abducted by North Korea in the 1970s.PlayABC News
WATCH Families of Japanese detained in North Korea fight for their release

When Koichiro Iizuka was one-year-old, he and his sister waited and waited for their mother to pick them up from daycare.

She never came. She had been kidnapped, and he’s never seen her since.

“I have no memory [of her],” Iizuka told ABC News.

His mother, Yaeko Taguchi, is one of several Japanese citizens allegedly abducted by North Korea in the 1970s to teach top North Korea officials how to speak Japanese – or to turn those kidnapped – into spies.

It’s a deeply painful issue of great urgency in Japan. But now, after demanding their release for decades, the country believes there is an opening.

President Donald Trump is set to meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in the coming weeks. The president announced Wednesday that the three American men who have been detained in North Korea for the past year have been released and are on their way back to the U.S. with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

But Trump has also said he will raise the plight of Japanese abductees and vowed to help solve this issue.

“We will bring up the abductees. We'll bring up many different things. I think it's a time for talking, it's a time for solving problems. I know that's been a very big factor for you,” Trump said to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe when they met in April.

Abe has championed their release throughout his political career, with his former Minister for the Abduction Issue Eriko Yamatani telling ABC News, “The resolution of the abduction issue is the top priority for the Abe administration.”

“We will work very hard on that issue, and we will try and bring those folks back home – very, very hard,” Trump added at a news conference with Abe.

That promise is taken very seriously in Japan – and there is hope that the international pressure on North Korea, through sanctions and diplomatic isolation, could change the regime’s calculus.

Trump “has said that not only was he simply raised the matter but that he will confront squarely with North Korea to demand the return of them. I am very grateful,” said Takuya Yokota in halting English. His sister, Megumi Yokota, was also abducted, at just 13 years old.

Unlike Iizuka, Yokota has clear memories of the older sister he loved. Decades apart, he still gets emotional talking about her.

“She was always merry, bright, joyful, cheerful. She was always in the center of the group, and in fact, I adored my sister,” he told ABC News, his voice faltering at one point.

North Korea released five victims in 2002, claimed eight were now dead and denied four others were ever taken.

One of those eight said to be dead was Megumi Yokota. North Korea even sent Japan human remains they claimed were hers, but DNA testing proved were not.

Japan maintains that the remaining abductees are still alive and held by the regime – a personal hope shared by Yokota and Iizuchi.

“We Japanese live as if the entire population were one big huge family,” Yamatani said. “What took place did occur long ago. However, the abductees are still alive and not being able to return, trapped in North Korea, and therefore, for us, this abduction matter is a present and ongoing terrorism.”

Yamatani, Iizuka, and Yokota are part of a Japanese delegation that was in Washington last week to continue to press the Trump administration on this issue. They had meetings at both the White House and the State Department.

“The United States stands with those whose loved ones and family members were abducted. We will never forget their suffering, or the pain that their families feel in their absence,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement to ABC News, noting Trump’s promise in April to “urge North Korea to promptly resolve its abductions of Japanese citizens.”

But the U.S. has also distanced itself from Japan’s approach to the issue.

America tries to separate the detainees’ release from its calls for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, arguing that tying the two together complicates or prevents their freedom.

But Japan says the many threats North Korea poses must all be resolved together: “There must be a comprehensive resolution of the issues, including abductions, nuclear, and missile,” Yamatani told ABC News. “We consider that those are the essential terms and conditions to be fulfilled in order for the North to become a peaceful state.”

While many have hope that the current openings to the North could resolve this, there’s also great fear that Japan will be left behind by the U.S. and South Korea – and these victims forgotten entirely.

“I will maintain some hope, but I cannot be optimistic just by hearing mere words – only when we see something very concrete, which means immediate return of all the abductees at the same time at once,” Yokota said.

As the victims and their families age, time is running out, too.

“This would be the last opportunity,” Yamatani warned.

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