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Kidnapping is a hot political issue in Japan, and senior Japanese officials were in the U.S. this week looking for help resolving a series of abductions that happened nearly four decades ago when North Korea took more than a dozen Japanese citizens, including teenagers. NPR's Jackie Northam has the story.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: On a November evening in 1977, Megumi Yokota and a friend were walking home from high school in Niigita, a seaside town in western Japan. Yokota was 13 years old and wearing a school uniform. When they were close to Yokota's house, the two said goodbye and went their separate ways. Yokota never made it home. Her brother, Takuya Yokota, said her disappearance had a profound impact on the family
TAKUYA YOKOTA: (Through interpreter) She was like a sunflower to the family, very cheerful. She would brighten the family up. After she was gone, the family became very dark and somber. It was very difficult for my parents.
NORTHAM: The Yokota family searched for years for their daughter. Finally in 2002, there was a break. North Korea admitted it operated a state-sponsored abduction program, says Victor Cha, a North Korea specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Japanese civilians were kidnapped and used to teach North Korean spies the Japanese language and culture so they could more easily infiltrate the country.
VICTOR CHA: The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted that these abductions took place and that they would not happen any more as an attempt at a political settlement. This did not resolve the issue for the Japanese public. It enraged them. It made them incredibly angry, and that's why the issue has become such a big one.
NORTHAM: Japan believed 17 of its citizens were abducted and demanded they be returned. North Korea says it took 13 people. In 2002, it released five captives and said eight others, including Megumi Yokota, had died. Her cremated remains were returned. Japanese officials say DNA testing showed the remains were not Yokota. Her brother doesn't believe his sister is dead.
YOKOTA: (Through interpreter) We still believe to this day she is alive. We can't give up. I think we need to focus on saving the lives of our families.
NORTHAM: The Japanese government has pressed North Korea to provide more information about the fate of the captives. In 2014, it agreed to lift sanctions if North Korea would investigate, says Takehiro Shimada, a senior government official working on the abduction issue.
TAKEHIRO SHIMADA: About two years ago, they committed to establish a special committee to investigate all of the Japanese in North Korea, but unfortunately they haven't got any official reply yet.
NORTHAM: With no information coming in and after North Korea launched rockets and conducted a nuclear test this year, Japan reinstated the old sanctions, slapped on new ones and is now turning to the U.S. and the international community for help. Yokota and government officials were in the U.S. to talk with administration and U.N. officials. Victor Cha says at best it'll help remind people about the issue.
CHA: This has always been on the U.S. radar screen, but I don't expect any uptick in the activity by the United States in pushing this issue forward.
NORTHAM: Cha says the U.S. has his own issues with North Korea. That includes the incarceration of a 21-year-old American for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. Jackie Northam, NPR News.
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