Mystery deepens around N. Korean kidnappings

The results of a fact-finding mission, released Tuesday, raise more questions about the deaths of eight Japanese.

Sakie Yokota's voice breaks as she recalls the day her 13-year-old daughter, Megumi, failed to come home. "We wandered along the beach in the darkness, calling her name, but all we could hear were the waves," she said. "We used to have a happy life, but since then we cry every day."

That search, which began on a lonely beach in northern Niigata 25 years ago, may have reached a conclusion. Tuesday, a Japanese Foreign Ministry delegation returned from Pyongyang with the results of a four-day investigation into one of world's most bizarre state crimes – the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens by North Korean special forces during the 1970s and '80s.

But victims' families say the findings – including the North Korean claim that seven of the bodies were washed away by floods – only deepened the mystery and the tragedy surrounding the abductees.

Megumi, the youngest of the victims, was last seen Nov. 15, 1977, walking home along a coastal road from a school badminton class. After a few weeks of searching without clues, police filed the case away as another missing teenager. Then, five years ago, a captured North Korea agent said she had seen a Japanese girl matching Megumi's description in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

For years, stories of couples being carried off from beaches in the night by North Korean agents filled the Japanese media. At first, few gave much credence to the tales, which seemed to be among the most unlikely of cold war fantasies. After all, the victims of these operations were of no military, scientific or political value. Instead, they included a beautician, a cook, and couples on romantic seaside dates who were suddenly whisked off to the hermit kingdom.

But the rumors persisted, and reports of failed abductions and testimonies of captured North Korean spies proved convincing enough for the Japanese government to draw up a list of citizens who it suspected were abducted by its reclusive neighbor and used to help train North Korean agents in Japanese language and culture.

The North Korean regime angrily denied the accusations until this summer, when the administration's position softened in an attempt to win economic aid from Japan and remove the country from US president George Bush's "axis of evil."

So when Junichiro Koizumi became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Pyongyang last month, Sakie and her husband Shigeru had high hopes for news that their daughter was still alive.

Instead, their worst fears were realized when the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il confirmed the abductions and said that eight of the victims, including Megumi, had died. Given the high number of fatalities – statistically unlikely even in impoverished North Korea – the Yokotas joined other grief-stricken and angry relatives of the victims in demanding that the government investigate the deaths before resuming diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang.

The victims' families say they are not satisfied with the results of this week's mission.

Megumi, according to North Korean authorities, hanged herself in 1993 in a psychiatric hospital where she was being treated for depression. She had married and had a daughter, who reportedly still has the badminton racket her mother was carrying when she was abducted.

The Yokotas refuse to believe their daughter is dead, though the foreign ministry delegation brought back a photograph and a hair sample for DNA testing. The results of those tests have not yet been released. "There are very many unnatural points in their explanation," said a tearful Shigeru yesterday. "We aren't satisfied with what they are telling us."

Other families were left with even more questions after authorities in Pyongyang tried to explain away the remaining deaths with a grim but hard-to-verify catalogue of misfortune. Two of the abductees who died on the same day were said to have been victims of a car crash. Another couple were alleged to have died after inhaling toxic fumes from a stove. Other causes of death included a drowning at sea and liver cirrhosis.

Attempts to verify these claims by examining the remains were impossible because North Korean authorities said all but Megumi had been washed away by floods – a claim that has led some relatives to believe their children and siblings were executed to cover up the crime.

"They said my sister died of heart disease at the age of 27," said Teruaki Masumoto, whose sister Rumiko was kidnapped in 1978. "But I don't believe she died of heart disease at such a young age."

Meanwhile, all five surviving victims, who met with the Japanese delegation in Pyongyang, said they wished to remain in North Korea despite their freedom to leave. Investigators also learned that one of those victims, Hitomi Soga – kidnapped in 1978 while shopping with her mother on Sado Island – is married to a former US soldier, Charles Jenkins, who defected to the North in the 1960s. Officials say they have two daughters who both attend Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.

The head of the Japanese fact-finding mission has not dismissed the idea of further investigations. But Mr. Koizumi said he would push ahead with a plan to resume talks with the North later this month, despite the protest of victims' families. In another sign that the North is opening up, US special envoy James Kelly begins security talks with North Korean leaders today in Pyongyang.

"Talks will start as planned," Koizumi told reporters. "North Korea appears to have responded sincerely to the investigative team."

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