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Future of Japanese Abduction Victims Raises Tensions Between Japan, North Korea - 2002-11-15

Tensions are rising between Japan and North Korea over a group of Japanese abduction victims who have been on their first visit home in 24 years. Pyongyang demands they return while Tokyo insists they stay in Japan and that their family members join them.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made a stunning admission to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi when the two met in September. After years of North Korean denials, he confessed that Pyongyang's agents had kidnapped at least 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to help the Stalinist state with spying. He apologized for the abductions and said those responsible would be punished.

It initially appeared that the startling confession would help smooth strained ties between the two Northeast Asian neighbors, which have never established diplomatic relations.

But if anything, public outrage in Japan toward North Korea has escalated and the goal of setting up official relations appears as distant as ever. The fate of the abductees was a main stumbling block in normalization talks held last month in Kuala Lumpur, the first meeting in two years.

North Korea agreed to allow the five abductees known to be alive to visit their families in Japan. Pyongyang, however, barred their children from coming with them.

The abductees came home October 15, expecting to stay for one or two weeks. Their emotional arrival was shown on live television, and the nation was spellbound. It remains deeply caught up in the drama of the returnees.

Hitomi Soga, kidnapped from remote Niigata Prefecture in 1978, is now married to Robert Charles Jenkins, reportedly a former U.S. soldier who defected to North Korea 37 years ago. Ms. Soga wept as she spoke to reporters shortly after her return to Japan. "I feel like I am living a dream," she said. "Japan's mountains, rivers, valleys and people all look beautiful to me. The sky, land and trees seem to whisper 'welcome back.'"

The abductees returned to their hometowns to spend time with long-lost relatives and friends. Since then, they have said little about their plans and have shied away from criticizing the North's hard-line government. However, they have asked to be reunited quickly with their children.

Their Japanese families have been more outspoken, demanding that Pyongyang allow the abductees' seven children, along with Ms. Soga's American husband, to come to Japan. Some relatives liken the children to hostages.

They also have lobbied for the returnees to stay in Japan permanently.

Yukio Hamomoto, the brother of one of the abductees, says "Tokyo should never force the abductees to return and it must help bring the children to Japan who have been left in North Korea."

The Japanese government has echoed those demands, angering Pyongyang. Japan refuses to move forward with normalization talks or economic aid to the impoverished North until its conditions are met. Yasuo Fukuda, Tokyo's chief government spokesman, says "the five abductees will stay in Japan. We also ask the North to confirm the safety of their children and establish a date for them to come to Japan as well."

The Japanese government has asked Washington to pardon Mr. Jenkins, the alleged U.S. Army deserter, so that he can come to Japan without fear of extradition to the United States. But in an interview with a Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Kinyobi, published Thursday, Mr. Jenkins is quoted as saying he wants his wife to return to North Korea as soon as possible.

North Korean Red Cross officials have denounced Tokyo for what they describe as inhumanely separating the abductees from their children. Pyongyang also threatens to cancel bilateral security talks set for later this month unless the abductees return.

While the dispute drags out, the families of eight abductees Pyongyang says have died are pushing for more information on their fate. North Korea says the graves of seven were washed away in a flood. It recently returned to Japan what it says are the remains of the eighth, but Japanese forensic experts say they belong to someone else.

Japanese officials also confirmed Wednesday that they have asked North Korea for information on other suspected abductions. Police along Japan's western coast are investigating about 30 missing persons cases to see if they could be kidnapping victims. Citizens groups say the actual number of abductees could be as high as 60. Pyongyang has confirmed only 13.