During President Obama’s trip to Japan this week, he met with the mother of a 13-year-old girl abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from school 36 years ago — never to be seen again. She is one of at least 17 and possibly hundreds of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Koreans between 1977 and 1983.
North Korea’s former dictator Kim Jong-Il finally admitted after many denials in 2002 his country had abducted 13 citizens, though Japan puts the number at 17 and a UN report said it could be even higher.
The Japanese government believes the abductions were state-sponsored and carried out for three purposes:
- allowing North Korean agents to steal victims’ identities;
- forcing the victims to teach North Korean spies how to act Japanese;
- and recruiting the victims into a terrorist group that had previously hijacked a Japanese airliner.
The male and female victims ranged from ages 13 to 52, although most were in their 20s. Some young couples disappeared together, such as one pair out on a date and another couple who headed to the beach to watch a sunset. In one case, a mother and daughter disappeared after leaving their home to go shopping. A few of the victims were kidnapped during stays in Europe, but the rest were taken from Japan. Five have been returned.
Although North Korea agreed to fully investigate the abductions, the reclusive communist nation still hasn’t provided an adequate explanation, according to a 2012 report by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Japanese government has issued arrest warrants for suspected North Korean agents in many of the cases, but North Korea has refused requests to extradite those suspects to Japan.
North Korea claims some of the deceased victims died from gas accidents, car accidents, and disease. It asserts one kidnapped couple both died of heart attacks within two years of each other. The only evidence North Korea provided were the remains of two victims, claiming they belonged to Megumi Yokota, kidnapped at 13, and Kaoru Matsuki, abducted at 26. But Japanese forensic analysis determined both those remains contained the DNA of other people, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs report.
Some Japanese citizens are still angry about the abductions and believe more victims are still alive in North Korea. Megumi Yokota, the 13-year-old girl kidnap victim, remains the most widely known victim among Japan’s population.
After her abduction, Yokota married a South Korean who was also kidnapped by North Korea agents, according to The New York Times. North Korea claims Yokota killed herself in a mental hospital in 1994, a story Yokota’s parents still refuse to believe.
Yokota, by far the youngest of all the victims, may have been abducted only because she witnessed North Korean agents operating in her vicinity, Slate explained.
Last month North Korea allowed Yokota’s parents to meet their 26-year-old granddaughter, born from Yokota in North Korea. In the past, North Korea has been accused of using the granddaughter as leverage during negotiations.
Tensions between Japan and North Korea reached a boiling point when the latter launched a large rocket over Japan in 2012. However, the Times reported that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has since tried to resume productive dialogue over the lingering abduction issue.
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