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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February, 2005, 13:33 GMT
Heartbreak over Japan's missing
Family of Japanese missing protesting
Relatives have been demanding news for years
The mystery over what happened to Japanese citizens who went missing in North Korea always appeared too fantastical to be true.

About a dozen people were apparently snatched by North Korean agents as they went about their daily lives - walking home from school, enjoying romantic dates, leaving a restaurant.

But at an historic meeting between the leaders of North Korea and Japan in 2002, the shadowy stories were invested with a chilling reality.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il apologised for the abductions and said that eight Japanese abductees were dead.

Since then, details of what happened to some of the missing have emerged.

At least four of them are said to have died in their 20s or 30s. North Korean officials say two died from gas poisoning, two in a car crash, one from drowning and one from suicide.

But many people in Japan question North Korea's claims that they died due to natural disasters or natural causes.

Pyongyang said the graves of seven of the eight washed away in floods. The one set of remains Japanese officials were given have not provided any concrete information because they are said to have been cremated twice.

Five of the kidnapped survived. In October 2002 they were allowed to visit Japan, and never went back despite Pyongyang's protestations. North Korea refused, however, to allow their seven North Korea-born children, and an American husband, to join them.

At a subsequent summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in May 2004, five of the children were allowed to travel to Tokyo, to be reunited with their parents.

The family of former kidnap victim Hitomi Soga initially opted to stay behind. Her husband, Charles Jenkins, is alleged by Washington to be a US army deserter who defected to the North in 1965.

But in July 2004, Mr Jenkins and the couple's two daughters were reunited with Ms Soga, although the threat of extradition to the US still hangs over Mr Jenkins.

Suspicious timing

For the families of those who allegedly did not survive, questions remain.

The two Japanese who died on the same day as each other were Keiko Arimoto and Toru Ishioka. They had both vanished while studying English in Europe.

Keiko Arimoto
Keiko Arimoto died on the same day as another abductee

Mr Ishioka's family received a letter from him in September 1988 indicating he was living with Ms Arimoto and another abductee, Kaoru Matsuki, in North Korea.

It is now known Ms Arimoto and Mr Ishioka died less than a month after the letter was sent. Ms Arimoto's mother believes this was no coincidence.

"They must have been executed publicly because of the letter. They were used as a warning to other Japanese, to show them what would happen to them if they wrote letters to Japan," 76-year-old Kayoko Arimoto told Kyodo news agency.

A Japanese woman, Megumi Yao, has since admitted working with the North Koreans to try to ensnare Ms Arimoto and other young women.

Ms Yao was a member of a cell of Japanese radicals based in Pyongyang believed to be behind at least some of the disappearances.

Megumi Yokota
Megumi Yokota: Vanished aged 13

The suspicion is that young women were wanted as wives for Japanese already in North Korea, to help build a community of Japanese revolutionaries.

Others may have been taken to teach Japanese language and customs to North Korean spies.

Akihiro Arimoto, the father of Keiko, said before learning his daughter had died that the impasse over the abductees had been tremendously frustrating.

"That's what's wrong with Japan," he said. "All the evidence was on the table - that she had been taken to North Korea.

"But for years no-one in the government would help - it was too sensitive for them."

The Arimotos and several other families have now received that help - but it has come too late to save their children.

Japan has repeatedly tried to resolve outstanding issues surrounding the kidnap crisis in talks with Pyongyang. At the summit in May 2004, North Korea promised to investigate further.

Profiles of the kidnapped

The following are confirmed to have died:

  • Megumi Yokota: Vanished in 1977, aged 13, as she was walking home from badminton practice.
  • Keiko Arimoto: Disappeared when she was 23 after travelling to Europe to study English in 1983.
  • Rumiko Matsumoto and Shuichi Ichikawa: Went missing aged 24 and 23 as they met on the coast in 1978.
  • Yaeko Taguchi: Thought to have disappeared after dropping her two children off at nursery in 1978.
  • Tadaaki Hara: Believed to have been kidnapped from a coastal area in 1980 when he was 49.
  • Kaoru Matsuki and Toru Ishioka: Went missing in Europe. They were not on a list of 11 victims that Japan had been pressing for answers on.

The survivors are:

  • Yasushi Chimura and Fukie Hamamoto: Fiances who disappeared aged 23 and 22 after leaving a coastal restaurant in 1978. They were kept apart in North Korea for 16 months before they were allowed to marry. They have three children.
  • Yukiko Okudo and Kaoru Hasuike: Vanished aged 22 and 20 after meeting in a library in a coastal region in 1978. Now married with two children.
  • Hitomi Soga A female nurse who was kidnapped from Sado Island in the Sea of Japan in 1978, at the age of 19, along with her mother. Married to former US soldier Charles Robert Jenkins, who has now joined his wife in Japan. He met her in North Korea, where he deserted from the US military while stationed in the South. They have two daughters.

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