N. Korea, Japan settle decades-old abductions

Sunday, May 23, 2004

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi returned from a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on Saturday with a major political trophy: the five children of two Japanese couples who were abducted to the North decades ago and returned two years ago.

Tokyo pledged more than $10 million in food and humanitarian aid to the impoverished, isolated country, although Koizumi stressed it was "not a reward" for the release of the family members.

The husband of one of the kidnapped Japanese -- a former American soldier accused of deserting his Army unit in 1965 -- chose to remain in North Korea with the couple's two adult daughters, fearing possible extradition and prosecution in the United States.

The parents met their children, ages 16 to 22, with tears and hugs as they climbed down from a government plane that followed Koizumi's official jet home from his one-day trip to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang. The families then went to a Tokyo hotel to rest and prepare for their new life together.

"They seem nervous about what's going to happen from now on," Yasushi Chimura said of his three children, but added they seemed well.

The emotional reunion offered some closure to a bizarre saga that has captivated -- and outraged -- the Japanese public since Kim acknowledged in his first summit with Koizumi in 2002 that North Korean agents systematically abducted Japanese in the 1970s and '80s to train Northern spies in the Japanese language and culture.

One month after that summit, Kim allowed the two couples and Hitomi Soga -- who met and married American Charles Jenkins in North Korea -- to return to Japan. Their relatives, however, had to stay behind.

"I think my summit here was very meaningful," Koizumi told reporters before returning to Tokyo after just nine hours in Pyongyang. "The most beneficial thing for both countries would be to change from hostile relations to friendly relations, and from opposition to cooperation. That's why I came."

Koizumi promised to provide 250,000 tons of food aid to the impoverished communist state, along with $10 million worth of medical supplies.

The aid pledge was being made through and at the request of international organizations and should not be considered an exchange for the family members' release, he said, although it seemed likely that the pledge was key in Kim's decision to allow the relatives to leave.

Koizumi also vowed to resume talks toward establishing formal diplomatic relations, but set no date.

For his part, Kim pledged to respect a moratorium on long-range missile launches. Virtually all of Japan is within range of the North's missiles and was shocked when a 1998 test sent one over Japan's main island.

But the two sides made no significant breakthroughs on North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Officials said only that the discussions were "frank" and "meaningful."

"I emphasized strongly to Kim Jong Il that there is very little to gain in terms of energy aid or food aid by possessing nuclear weapons," Koizumi said. "But if you abandon nuclear weapons, you can gain the international community's cooperation."

Despite lingering historical animosities between Japan and its former colony, Kim is eager to normalize relations. Tokyo says it will only provide significant economic aid after such ties are established.

Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910 until its World War II defeat in 1945, and distrust runs deep between the two nations. At the summit, Koizumi and Kim maintained a businesslike manner. They issued no joint statement and parted quickly after just 90 minutes of talks.

Tokyo announced in October 2000 that it was donating 500,000 tons of rice to North Korea through the United Nations, but has not sent food aid since then because of the nuclear and abductions issues. Japan did send medical supplies for a recent train explosion near North Korea's border with China.

Some suspect Kim is cozying up to Tokyo to undermine an ongoing series of multilateral talks on the nuclear issue. The United States, which refuses to deal with North Korea one-on-one, is concerned by perceived efforts by Pyongyang to weaken the solidarity of the negotiation partners.

While in the North, Koizumi met for one hour with Jenkins. The former U.S. soldier told Koizumi he'd rather remain in North Korea with his two daughters, Mika, 20, and Belinda, 18, than face a possible U.S. court-martial for desertion.

Washington has refused to grant Jenkins, a native of Rich Square, N.C., a pardon or give him some other form of special consideration. But Koizumi said Jenkins reacted favorably to the idea of meeting his wife in Beijing.

American military officials say Jenkins was a 24-year-old sergeant when he left a border patrol on the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone to defect to the North. For defecting, the North Korean government gave him a car and a job teaching English. Soga was his student.

Japan also has questioned North Korea's account of what happened to at least 10 other abduction victims. The North claims eight are dead, but the fate of the other two -- including Soga's mother -- remains unclear.

Relatives of the victims believed dead have criticized Koizumi for offering the North aid without getting a full accounting about what happened to their loved ones.

Fumiko Hirano, whose sister Rumiko Masumoto reportedly died of heart disease at age 26, said she felt betrayed.

"I realized I'd overestimated the prime minister. He is a person that cannot be trusted," she said. "I thought his actions were very irresponsible toward this country."

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