Quarter-century after abduction, a bittersweet reunion in Japan

5 taken by N. Korea see families, changed nation

October 16, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

TOKYO - Speaking rusty Japanese, sporting red North Korean flag lapel pins and looking older than their years, five middle-age Japanese men and women stepped off an airplane yesterday and into a Japan they had not known in almost a quarter-century.

The five embraced relatives they had not seen since the summer of 1978, when North Korean kidnappers snatched them off Japanese beaches, bundled them into bags and took them by boats to North Korea.

There, they were cut off from the outside world and pressed into service as Japanese language and cultural tutors for North Korean spies.

For decades, the secretive North Korean government denied the kidnappings. But last month, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan made a ground-breaking visit to Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il unexpectedly acknowledged 13 abductions and apologized.

Arriving in Tokyo yesterday, the five survivors learned of the births of nieces and nephews, babies who are now college students.

In the coming days, they are to discover a Japan where eight-track tapes have given way to compact discs, where black hair and green tea have given way to dyed hair and gourmet coffee, where social lives revolve around cell phones and the Internet, and where 14 prime ministers have spun in and out of government since 1978.

On the tarmac of Tokyo's domestic airport yesterday, the tears and long hugs contrasted with the festive red-and-white Japanese flags and homemade banners reading "Welcome Home."

"He leaned down and hugged me and said, `I'm sorry to have worried you,' and then the long 24 years seemed somehow a bit shorter," Hatsui Hasuike said after embracing her son, Kaoru. Last seen in Japan as a college junior, he returned yesterday as a 45-year-old translator and father of two.

But when Kaoru Hasuike's elder brother, Toru, asked about the kidnapping, he deflected the question, saying: "Not now. Let's talk about it later."

At a brief news conference, several returnees had red eyes from crying, but their public comments were short and circumspect. With several speaking with light Korean accents, the five limited themselves to apologizing to relatives for the worry their kidnappings had caused.

Two couples who had been kidnapped on dates returned here as married couples with grown children. Kaoru Hasuike came here with his wife, Yukiko Okudo, who is 46. Yasushi Chimura, 47, was accompanied by his wife, Fukie Hamamato, also 47.

Japan's media frenzy - special newspaper editions, live television coverage, and hundreds of reporters and cameras assembled for a news conference - was not enough to induce the abductees to speak their minds.

Next week, the five are to fly back to North Korea to rejoin their children, who remained behind yesterday.

Hitomi Soga, 43, left in Pyongyang not only two daughters but also her husband, Charles Robert Jenkins. Jenkins, who saw his wife off at Pyongyang International Airport yesterday morning, is a 62-year-old North Carolina native who deserted the U.S. Army in South Korea in January 1965.

Akitaka Saiki, a Japanese official, talked to Jenkins at the airport yesterday. He said Jenkins had recalled living in Japan at an Army base near Tokyo in the early 1960s but was reluctant to fly to Tokyo yesterday, apparently out of fear of arrest and deportation to the United States.

Pyongyang has said that the six children of the returnees did not want to accompany their parents to Japan. But in Tokyo, the Japanese grandparents said the children are being held as hostages.

Although the two couples and Soga are here on short leashes, they are lucky survivors. Last month, North Korea reported that of the 13 Japanese people its intelligence officers had kidnapped, eight are dead.

Japanese officials say a total of 15 were kidnapped, and two groups of relatives of abductees say the real number might be 50 to 60.

On Monday, Koizumi openly suggested what many Japanese believe - that North Korea had executed many kidnap victims.

"Certainly North Korea is an unpardonable country," Koizumi said on national television. "It abducts, takes away and kills."

The prime minister later backpedaled a bit, saying he was conveying the opinions of many people in Japan, not necessarily his own.

Last month, Pyongyang said the eight abductees had died untimely deaths. One woman died of heart disease at age 27, it said. Another woman, who was kidnapped at age 13, hanged herself at age 29. A family of three died of gas poisoning at home.

And in a country where car ownership is restricted to the top elite, two others died in an automobile accident.

Pyongyang said most of the graves were washed away in floods that ravaged the nation in the mid-1990s.

Yesterday morning, the 15-year-old daughter of the woman who was reported to have committed suicide went to Pyongyang's airport, evidently believing that her grandparents would be coming on the two-hour flight from Japan.

Her grandfather, Shigeru Yokota, said in Tokyo yesterday, "I want to meet the girl as soon as possible."

A leader in a decades-long campaign to win freedom for the abductees, Yokota said he was devastated to learn last month that his daughter, Megumi, had apparently fallen into a deep depression in Pyongyang, leading to her suicide a decade ago in a psychiatric hospital.

Looking at a photo of his 15-year-old granddaughter, he said: "She is small in stature and looks like me and my wife."

On Oct. 29 and 30, Japan and North Korea are to hold talks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with the aim of eventual normalization of ties between the two countries, which have never had diplomatic relations.

Yesterday, Koizumi vowed to use those talks to win the return of family members and to "probe into the truth about other abductees whose fates are yet unknown."

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