PYONGYANG, North Korea -- In an astonishing concession, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted Tuesday that North Korean spies abducted about a dozen Japanese decades ago and said at least four were still alive.
The turnaround -- after years of angry denials -- opened the door for the two estranged neighbors to reopen talks to establish diplomatic ties, and could signal a change in North Korea's often hostile approach to relations with the outside world.
But the news was shattering for those who learned their sons and daughters were lost to them forever.
"Never in my dreams did I imagine this would be the result," said Kayoko Arimoto, whose daughter Keiko vanished in 1983 at age 23 while studying in Europe and is now dead.
Kim made the revelation during a landmark summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at which he promised North Korea would continue to freeze missile-test firings and asked Tokyo to relay to the United States a willingness for dialogue, including accepting inspections of suspected nuclear weapons programs.
For his part, Koizumi expressed remorse over the suffering his nation caused the Korean people before and during World War II and promised to discuss economic aid in the normalization talks, set to start next month.
Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and forced thousands of Koreans to work in Japanese mines and shipyards and serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. North Korea's demand for compensation for the atrocities had been another sticking point in talks between the two nations. Japan has ruled out such compensation and offered aid instead.
But the issue of the abductions was the one most closely watched by the Japanese public at the summit. Japan and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations, and normalization talks that began in 1991 fell apart two years ago, primarily over the kidnappings.
To train spies
Displaying an openness previously unseen from the isolated communist state, Kim admitted that North Korean agents had kidnapped the Japanese in the late 1970s and early 1980s to train the North's spies in Japanese language and culture and to allow spies to assume their identities.
Kim said at least four of the 11 kidnapping victims listed by the Japanese police were still alive and his nation was prepared to let them return to Japan. Six of the 11 and two other abducted Japanese were confirmed dead.
"This will never happen again," Kim was quoted as saying by a Japanese Foreign Ministry official. "It is regrettable, and I apologize sincerely."
In a statement, North Korea promised to help the survivors meet with their families, and take "necessary steps to let them return home or visit their hometowns if they wish."
Kim blamed misguided special agents for the abductions.
He also acknowledged North Korean agents were behind the spy ships that have periodically shown up in Japanese waters. He said he was surprised to learn of them through an internal investigation and had begun wiping out the "special forces" to make them "a relic of the past," said the Japanese Foreign Ministry official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
'We must wait and see'
The beginning of a dialogue with North Korea is a big step toward bringing the secretive regime into the international community, said Junichi Kyogoku, honorary professor of politics at the University of Tokyo.
"It's a step forward if we weigh the possible consequences for regional peace," Kyogoku said from Tokyo. "That the contact has begun is a plus, but we must wait and see, rather than hurry to conclusions."
Signs have emerged lately that North Korea may be gradually softening its stance. Hit by food shortages and struggling to revive a hobbled economy, the communist nation needs monetary aid from Japan. As a U.S. ally, Japan could also provide a different sort of help.
North Korea has grown increasingly concerned about its tumultuous relationship with the United States since President Bush branded it part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran, suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.
'I am at a loss'
News that most of the kidnapping victims are dead was greeted with anguish and bitterness from the victims' families and many Japanese, who said the announcement only raised more questions.
Hopes had been high that Koizumi would bring the kidnapping victims home and the Japanese leader said he was devastated when he learned so many were dead.
"When I think of the families, I am at a loss for words," Koizumi said at a news conference at a Pyongyang hotel. "I strongly protested the abductions."
But he also defended his decision to press ahead quickly with normalization talks to promote not only regional peace but world stability.
"Without talking, better relations are not possible," Koizumi said.
Japan has pressed North Korea to investigate the victims' deaths, which North Korean officials said were caused by illness and other natural disasters.
But many relatives questioned how their loved ones could have died so young. Half the victims would now be in their 40s or 50s.
"I was really looking forward to some good news," said Shigeru Yokota, whose 13-year-old daughter Megumi disappeared in 1977 as she was walking home from school badminton practice.
"But it was that she was dead," he told reporters in Tokyo, choking back tears. "I can't believe that she's dead."
Megumi had been believed alive because former agents had reported seeing her in North Korea. The Foreign Ministry official said North Korea told them Megumi had a daughter who was living in Pyongyang.