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Relatives of Japanese Abducted by N. Korea Seek US Intervention - 2003-03-03

Relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea are heading to the United States, to ask U.S. officials to push Pyongyang for more information on their loved ones. The families fear the international dispute over North Korea's nuclear programs is taking attention away from their cause.

Four relatives of Japanese abductees and three lawmakers flew to Washington Monday. They want help in learning more about their relatives, who were abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s and were never heard from again.

Shigeru Yokota is the father of Megumi, who disappeared in 1977 as she walked home from school. He says he wants to explain to people in the United States that abduction is an act of terrorism and to tell them more about this crime.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acknowledged for the first time last September that agents from his country had kidnapped Ms. Yokota and about a dozen other Japanese citizens. They were forced to train North Korean spies.

Pyongyang officials said eight of them had died from illness or accidents. The other five returned to Japan for a visit six months ago and have remained, despite North Korean demands that they return.

But the families of those the North has declared dead, along with many other Japanese, want more information on them, and proof of their deaths. Pyongyang has shrugged off their requests, saying it lacks evidence because floods destroyed the graves.

The abductee issue receives heavy media coverage in Japan and remains a key obstacle to establishing diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and Tokyo. But the relatives who went to the United States say they fear the issue is being upstaged internationally by concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

U.S. officials say the North told them in October that it had an illegal nuclear weapons program, a charge Pyongyang denies. But since then the North has restarted idled nuclear facilities and withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Toru Hasuike, the brother of an abductee, said he wants to tell Americans that while the nuclear issue poses a threat to the international community, North Korea's abduction practices do as well.

The Japanese government is pressuring the isolated, communist state for more information on dozens of other people it thinks the North may have kidnapped.

Support groups in South Korea say Pyongyang also abducted dozens of South Koreans in past decades. But the South Korean government, which has a policy of trying to engage its hard-line neighbor, calls the claims controversial and unproven.