Japanese family awaits reunion with abducted son

Sunday, September 29, 2002

KASHIWAZAKI, Japan -- Hatsui Hasuike has gone over the night a million times in her head.

Kaoru, her youngest son, was home on summer break from a university in Tokyo. In the early evening of July 31, 1978, he said he was going to the library. He did not bother to take his wallet and said he would not be out late since they had to get up early the next morning to watch his sister compete in a tennis tournament.

"It was still hot and muggy outside, so he was wearing just a T-shirt, shorts and sandals," she said.

Kaoru never came back.

This month, the Hasuikes and a dozen other families around Japan finally learned what happened to their vanished sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

In a bizarre story of Cold War espionage, North Korea's reclusive leader admitted that spies from his country carried out repeated clandestine abductions in Japan and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, snatching Japanese to teach their language and culture to North Korean agents.

The abductees included a 13-year-old girl on her way home from badminton practice at school, a 52-year-old security guard, couples watching the sunset at the beach and a young woman staying in Denmark.

Kim Jong Il's confession of state-sanctioned kidnapping came at an unprecedented Sept. 17 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The admission was welcomed around the world as a sign one of the last remaining hardline communist nations, on the verge of economic collapse, may be willing to change.

For the families, however, the news was harsh.

North Korea said eight of the 13 abductees -- 11 named by Japan's police over the past decade and two named by North Korea -- were dead. Two died on the same day, the North said without explaining.

Four, including Kaoru Hasuike, were alive.

"We can't wait to see him," Hatsui said at her home on the northern Japan coast. "But we've been lied to for so long, it's hard to believe our son is really alive."

Earlier this year, President Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" -- with Iran and Iraq -- supporting global terrorism.

Washington is particularly concerned the country has nuclear weapons and has sold long-range missiles to Iran and Syria. In 1998, North Korea demonstrated its missile capabilities by launching one over the Japanese archipelago and almost to the shores of Alaska.

But North Korea's links to terror go back much further.

Alarm over North Korean terrorism peaked in the 1980s, when the country was accused of two grisly attacks -- a 1983 bombing in Myanmar that killed 17 visiting South Korean officials and the 1987 midair bombing of a Korean Air jet that killed all 115 people on board.

Two North Korean agents were seized in connection with the airliner bombing, but one committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule concealed in a cigarette filter.

The other, Kim Hyun Hui, who posed as a Japanese citizen and carried a Japanese passport, acknowledged what Japanese authorities had long suspected -- that Japanese were being stolen away to teach North Korean spies.

Japanese police were able to identify Kim's own teacher as Yaeko Taguchi, who vanished in June 1978 after leaving her two children at a child care center in Tokyo.

At the summit, North Korea confirmed Taguchi was abducted, and is now dead.

"When the news of Kim's role in the bombing broke, we really thought there was going to be a breakthrough," said Toru Hasuike, Kaoru's older brother. "There had been rumors of abductions, and this was confirmation that they really were taking place."

The North denied Kim's story, however. And the media moved on to other topics.

For the Hasuikes, that was just another of many frustrations.

A few days after 20-year-old Kaoru disappeared, they asked the local police to help find him. Kaoru's bicycle was found at the library, just a short walk from the beach, along with a bicycle belonging to his 22-year-old girlfriend, Yumiko Okudo. Okudo also vanished that night after telling friends she was going to the library.

The police said there was little they could do because Kaoru was an adult.

"They told us he may have run away, or committed suicide with his girlfriend," Hatsui said. "We didn't even know he had a girlfriend."

When rumors of North Korean involvement grew stronger, the Hasuikes appealed to Japan's Foreign Ministry.

But without diplomatic ties, the Hasuikes were told, there was little Tokyo could do to press the issue. Officials raised it when the two countries met two years ago to discuss normalizing relations, but the North's delegation denied the allegations and angrily ended the talks.

Few expected Kim to admit to the abductions this time. Seemingly caught off-guard, Japanese officials have been criticized for not demanding more information and for not immediately telling the families, who gathered in Tokyo to await updates, what little information they had.

"We were called in one family at a time and simply told whether our missing person was alive or dead," Hatsui said. "It's just not that simple."

Tokyo now is seeking DNA evidence to confirm that the dead are indeed who the North claims they are, and is pushing Pyongyang to provide details of how they died.

Police, meanwhile, are re-examining missing persons cases, and support groups say dozens more could lead back to North Korea. Hundreds of similar abductions may have occurred in South Korea, too.

In the days since being told their son was alive, the Hasuikes have learned a few other tidbits about him.

He was said to have married the woman he was abducted with and fathered two children, a son and daughter, aged 20 and 18. He was working as a translator and, North Korea said, was free to return home if he wanted to.

As a first step, Tokyo is considering arranging for families to travel to Pyongyang for brief reunions.

But the Hasuikes have mixed feelings about that prospect. Instead, they are seeking the return of their son to Japan as soon as possible.

"They are asking if we want to go to North Korea to see Kaoru," Toru said. "Of course we want to see him. But they should allow him to come here. How can he talk to us freely if he is still with his captors?"

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