Painful history of kidnapping of Japanese by North Korea

Takuya Yokota shows a picture of his sister Megumi Yokota, a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents decades ago as a schoolgirl, on his smartphone during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan, on Oct 26, 2017.
Takuya Yokota shows a picture of his sister Megumi Yokota, a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents decades ago as a schoolgirl, on his smartphone during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo, Japan, on Oct 26, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - After formal meetings with Japan's leaders on Monday (Nov 6), President Donald Trump will sit down with an elderly couple whose then 13-year-old daughter was kidnapped four decades ago by North Korean spies.

The abduction of Megumi Yokota while on her way home from school has become an emotional symbol of the enmity between Tokyo and Pyongyang.

Japan suspects dozens more still missing were also abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s to train their own spies in the Japanese language and culture.

HOW MANY TAKEN?

In 2002, North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese civilians but the government in Tokyo believes at least 17 were taken to train Pyongyang's agents.

A month later, five were allowed to return to Japan. Pyongyang insists the other eight are dead but have not produced cast-iron evidence.

One of those who were said to have died was Yokota, kidnapped on her way home from school in 1977 at the age of 13,  the youngest among the 17 officially listed as abductees by the Japanese government.

In 2004 North Korea handed over cremated remains it claimed were Yokota's. However, Tokyo said DNA tests conducted in Japan proved the claim to be untrue.

There are strong suspicions in Japan that dozens of other citizens were also snatched by the North.

Japanese police say there are 800 missing people for whom the possibility of being kidnapped by the hermit state cannot be ruled out.

JUST JAPANESE?

Japan is far from being the only country affected by North Korean abductions.

A 2014 UN report on human rights in North Korea estimated that 200,000 people from other countries have been abducted over the decades.

Most of them were South Koreans left stranded after the 1950-1953 Korean War, but hundreds of others from around the world - including women from Lebanon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Romania and France - were taken or disappeared while visiting the country between the 1960s and 1980s, the report said.

More recently, the North abducted a number of its own nationals and South Koreans from China, it said.

POSSIBLE RESOLUTION?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said resolving the issue of Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens is a top priority.

Japanese media said that Trump's meeting with abductee families is aimed at putting pressure on Pyongyang to resolve the issue, but it is unclear how much it will help progress negotiations.

Megumi's parents, Shigeru and Sakie, now 84 and 81, also met President Barack Obama when he visited Japan in 2014.

Under an agreement brokered in Stockholm in May 2014, North Korea undertook to re-investigate all abductions of Japanese citizens in what appeared to be a significant breakthrough on an issue that has long hampered Tokyo's relations with Pyongyang.

But there has been almost no progress since then, as relations between the North and the international community deteriorated amid a nuclear and missile crisis.