After decades in N. Korea, hijackers say they want to come home

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

TOKYO -- Since hijacking a plane to Pyongyang decades ago, a band of radicals from the Red Army Faction has been treated as heroes in North Korea, where they live in sprawling apartments, with cooks, maids and have chauffeur-driven luxury sedans.

But even heroes can overstay their welcome.

In a surprise statement, the four suddenly announced this month that they want to return to Japan -- where they face certain arrest -- by September, ending their exile in a suburb of the North Korean capital and closing a violent chapter of postwar Japanese history.

The hijackers -- Takahiro Konishi, 57, Shiro Akagi, 54, Moriaki Wakabayashi, 55, and Kimihiro Abe, 54 -- said they decided to leave because they don't want to endanger their North Korean hosts.

"We fear our presence could be used as a pretext to attack North Korea for being a terrorist-supporting regime," said the statement, which was sent to Japanese media and obtained by The Associated Press.

Experts, however, say they're being kicked out as part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's attempt to show the world he doesn't support terrorists.

"Pyongyang is effectively handing over the hijackers to try to bargain for what it really wants: help reviving its economy," said Pyon Jin-il, editor-in-chief of the Tokyo-based Korea Report, a monthly academic newsletter.

A major concession

Decades of international sanctions have ravaged North Korea's economy. Famine in the mid-1990s and the loss of farm subsidies from the Soviet Union have left the country heavily reliant on aid from donor countries to feed its people. President Bush further isolated the country by branding it as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.

Giving up the hijackers would be a major concession.

The 1970 hijacking of the Japan Airlines flight with 129 people -- the first ever hijacking of a Japanese plane -- marked the beginning of an era of high-profile terrorist acts around the world by Japanese radicals.

Wielding samurai swords and carrying a bomb, the hijackers forced the flight, bound for the southwestern city of Fukuoka, to fly to South Korea, where all the passengers were freed, and then on to North Korea, where the crew members were released.

The Red Army Faction, formed in 1969, was an offshoot of Japan's radical left student movement of the 1960s.

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