Japanese kidnapped by North Koreans return home in tears

Japanese kidnapped by North Koreans return home in tears

By Colin Joyce in Tokyo12:01AM BST 16 Oct 2002

Five Japanese made an emotional return to their homeland yesterday nearly a quarter of a century after being abducted to North Korea.

The five, all in their forties, arrived by charter plane from Pyongyang to be greeted by relatives at Haneda airport, Tokyo. Fukie Hamamoto was first off the plane with her husband and fellow kidnap victim, Yasushi Chimura. She smiled and waved but wept seconds later as she embraced her brothers and sisters.

Ms Hamamoto’s brother Yuko said: “We were the liveliest group because there are seven siblings. We were laughing and talking noisily about things that happened when we were children. I was glad to see her smiling face as before.”

The relatives waved Japanese flags and held a sign saying: “Welcome home.” Four of the five victims wept as they hugged and held hands with relatives. Only Kaoru Hasuike remained composed as he greeted the family he last saw 24 years ago.

The five were kidnapped from remote places on the Japanese coast by North Korean agents in three separate incidents in 1978. Four later married. All have now lived longer in the secretive Stalinist nation than in their homeland.

For the families the visit marks the high point of their long campaign to be reunited with their loved ones. For many years few people believed the rumours that North Korean spies were kidnapping ordinary young Japanese. When Tokyo began to press the cases, Pyongyang dismissed the allegations as slander.

But at a summit last month Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, admitted to Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese prime minister, that “elements in the military” had kidnapped 13 Japanese between 1978 and 1983 to teach their language to spies. Of these, eight are reported to be dead.

Japan has eagerly awaited the return of the survivors. Millions watched on television as the national broadcaster, NHK, transmitted several hours of live coverage.

Reports told of how the five said, “Delicious, delicious”, as they ate Japanese food on the plane.

Former classmates were called on to express their feelings on the return of their long-lost friends. One man said he had played baseball with Mr Hasuike at school and hoped they would have a chance to play catch together.

Class reunions have been planned for the five when they return to their home towns this week.

Neighbours of the kidnapped marvelled at how little they had changed since their disappearance so long ago. Hitomi Soga alone had changed considerably and had permed hair, but elderly women from the tiny island of Sado, where she once lived, said she was now the image of her mother.

The five are expected to stay in Japan for up to two weeks before returning to North Korea. All have children in Pyongyang. Activists campaigning for the permanent return of the five and their children say the children are hostages to ensure their parents do not criticise North Korea or try to stay in Japan.

At a press conference, each of the victims spoke a single sentence before leaving without taking questions. None made any political comments. All wore North Korean badges and the blue ribbons their families have made a symbol of their campaign.

Family members told reporters about the conversations they held on the coach from the airport. Mr Hasuike’s brother, Toru, said he had asked what had happened to eight kidnap victims reported dead. His brother said there would be time to talk later.

Ms Soga, who was 19 when she disappeared, asked her sister, Tomiko Kaneko, whether their father still drank and said she spoke a mixture of English and Korean with her husband, a former American serviceman who allegedly defected to Pyongyang.

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