Tokyo, April 18 (Jiji Press)–A quarter of a century has passed since families of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea decades ago formed an association for collective campaigns to win the early return of their loved ones.
The results so far have been limited at best, however. Five of 17 people listed by the Japanese government as abduction victims were reunited with their families in Japan in 2002, but two decades later there are few, if any, signs of the other abductees being set free by the reclusive state soon.
During the long wait, family members have aged. In recent years, some have passed away without getting a chance to give abductees a warm embrace. The leadership of the family group has been passed to the next generation.
The Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea was set up on March 25, 1997.
In January the same year, revelations of past testimony by a former North Korean agent who had defected to South Korea raised suspicions that Megumi Yokota had been snatched away from a Sea of Japan coastal area in 1977 at the age of 13. After media reported the suspected abduction case using her real name for the first time, seven families of people who went missing between 1977 and 1983 banded together, with Megumi‘s father, Shigeru, then 64, becoming the group’s first leader.
Immediately after its launch, the family association started lobbying for greater government efforts to bring back the abduction victims, collecting signatures of support for its drive. By the end of February this year, it had gathered about 15.3 million signatures.
After the government decided to provide food assistance to impoverished North Korea in 2000, members of the group staged sit-in protests including in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Tokyo.
Despite the families’ efforts, the remaining 12 abductees on the government list remain unaccounted for.
Some family members in the abductees’ parent generation have passed away in the meantime. Kayoko Arimoto, the 94-year-old mother of Keiko, died in February 2020, followed by the death of Shigeru Yokota, 87, in June the same year.
Shigeo Iizuka, who served as the guardian of abductee Yaeko Taguchi, his much younger sister, died at the age of 83 in December 2021, only days after stepping down as head of the family association for health reasons. Iizuka took over the role from Yokota in 2007.
“It’s like we can’t leave the battlefield even after someone next to you has collapsed and been taken away on a stretcher,” said Tsutomu Nishioka, head of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, a group supporting the family association.
Only two parents of abduction victims are still alive, including Sakie Yokota, the 86-year-old mother of Megumi, a symbol of the long-standing abduction issue.
“I didn’t think I would have to wait (for a reunion) such a long time,” the mother said. “Elderly people disappear over time and I will have to take my turn in due course.”
Late last year, Takuya Yokota, a younger brother of Megumi, was appointed the leader of the family association, the role his late father once assumed.
Yokota, 53, expressed frustration over the lack of progress toward the goal of bringing the remaining abductees home since they were spirited away about four decades ago.
“I was 9 years old when my sister was abducted. After 44 years, I feel a major contradiction in the reality that I have to fight (for the return of the abductees) as the third chief representative (of the family group),” he told reporters after taking up the post. “Why can’t we get a solution? I take on the role with quiet anger.”
Koichiro Iizuka, the eldest son of abductee Taguchi, became secretary-general of the family association.
The series of deaths among elderly family members “symbolizes the too long time that has been spent” for the quest to win the release of abduction victims, Iizuka, 45, said. “Given that no abductee has returned home since 2002, there is no denying that we haven’t achieved any results.”