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UN Panel Hears from Relatives of Japanese Abucted by N. Korea

In this undated photo released Nov. 17, 2004, by the Tokyo-based National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, Megumi Yokota stands by a car at an unknown place in North Korea after her abduction from her hometown in Japan.
Relatives of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s urged a United Nations panel on Thursday to help step up efforts to find out more about those still missing.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry that is investigating alleged human rights abuses in North Korea heard from several witnesses, including the parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977 at the age of 13.

Her 77-year-old mother, Sakie Yokota, told the panel that Megumi disappeared "like a puff of smoke," leaving her family in a tormented state that she said almost drove them mad.

Her father, 80-year-old Shigeru Yokota, said Pyongyang is the only one who knows how many Japanese were abducted. He pushed for the U.N. panel to pressure the North to release more information.

North Korea admitted in 2002 that it kidnapped some Japanese in order to force them to teach the Japanese language and culture to North Korean spies.

The North says all the abductees have since been returned or died. Many in Japan suspect Pyongyang is still hiding survivors and has abducted more people than it admits. The issue has become a major obstacle to Japan-North Korea relations.

The abductions are just one aspect of the many alleged human rights abuses being investigated by the three-member U.N. commission, which has been given a one-year mandate by the Security Council.

Earlier this week, it heard testimony from North Korean defectors about the conditions inside the North's prisons and labor camps, where as many as 200,000 people are thought to be held under abusive conditions.

Mike Kirby, who chairs the commission, has called for North Korea to participate in the investigation and provide open access to areas in question. North Korea has refused to recognize the panel. It also refuses to admit committing any human rights violations.