WASHINGTON - As the United States and North Korea engage in rare, high-level diplomacy to resolve disputes over the North’s nuclear weapons program, there’s new attention focused on Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens four decades ago.

Tokyo and Pyongyang have long been at odds over the truth-really-is-stranger-than-fiction stories of abductions by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, and what happened to the victims, most of them snatched from locations scattered on Japan’s western shore.

The 17 people identified as victims by the Japanese government included college students, couples, a mother of toddlers, and a teenager. In a nation known for conformity, not one of them stood out for anything other than disappearing.

But that was enough to keep the abductees’ fate near Japan’s heart. To this day, the victims’ families and support organizations regularly hold meetings and ask people to sign petitions in their determination to prevent Japanese citizens from being abducted by a foreign force again.

In 2002, there was a partial breakthrough in the mystery when then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korean agents had abducted 13 Japanese citizens and allowed five of the abductees to return to Japan. North Korea and Japan do not agree on the number of abductees.

Identity theft

“The true motivation was identity theft,” said Masami Abe, a former Sankei Shimbun reporter who first raised the abduction issue in 1980. “North Korean spies used the victims’ identifications to pass themselves off as Japanese nationals.” 

While many details of the abductions remain unknown, victims who were released testified that they were used to teach Japanese language and culture to North Korean spies, suggesting the abductions were part of North Korea’s espionage program.

Obtaining information on the fate of the remaining 12 abductees has emerged as a top priority for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Although North Korea says the issue has been resolved, Abe has met with U.S. President Donald Trump four times since January 2017 and has raised the abductions at each meeting.

In early June, Trump promised, “We will try and bring those folks back home.”

Abe has said Trump raised the issue at the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, but there was no mention of it in an agreement signed by Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Abe continues to push for direct talks with North Korea. “Of course, I wish to directly face North Korea and talk with them so that the abduction problem can be resolved quickly,” Abe said. “To this end, I am determined to take all possible means.”

Robert Boynton, author of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project, holds out little hope that Abe will get his wish.

“The North Koreans are very good at playing the long game,” he said. "They’ll wait until the generation that really cares most about the abductions dies off.”