TOKYO — Their stories are wrenching narratives of normalcy interrupted: the young couple taken while on a date at the beach, the single mother snatched on her way to pick up her toddlers after work, and the teenager who never made it home from badminton practice.
Four decades ago, according to the Japanese government, at least 17 Japanese citizens vanished at the hands of North Korea, leaving their families with precious little information. North Korea has acknowledged only that its agents abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and ‘80s. Five of them were returned home in 2002; North Korea has said the rest died long ago.
The Japanese government insists otherwise, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe repeatedly calling for North Korea to return the remaining abductees as part of his broader hawkish approach to the North.
Now President Donald Trump also plans to press the cause, meeting during a visit to Japan starting Sunday with several of the affected families, including the parents of Megumi Yokota, abducted by North Korea in 1977 when she was 13 years old.
Here in Japan, the tragic disappearances strike a deeper emotional chord than the fear of ballistic missile attacks, and have resonance akin to that of the fate of American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. Interviews with family members regularly appear in the Japanese media, and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
在日本，这些令人悲痛的失踪事件在情感上扣人心弦的程度，超过了对遭受弹道导弹攻击的恐惧，引发的共鸣与越战期间美国战俘的命运类似。对受害者家人的采访频频出现在日本媒体上，“救出被北朝鲜绑架日本人全国协议会”(National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea)一年能筹集数十万美元的资金。
“The abductee issue pulls at the heartstrings of the general public in a way that no other issue can,” said Richard Samuels, a Japan specialist and the director of the MIT Center for International Studies. “Because it’s about innocent people.”
“被绑架人员问题牵动着民众的心弦，没有其他问题能与之相比，”日本问题专家、麻省理工学院国际研究中心(MIT Center for International Studies)主任理查德·塞缪尔斯(Richard Samuels)说。“因为它涉及无辜民众。”
Unlike others who have fallen prey to North Korea after traveling there, the kidnapped Japanese citizens were taken from their hometowns to train spies there, leaving families wondering for years if they had run away or been murdered.
Now, with family members getting older, they are desperate to secure their loved ones’ return.
“This is a matter of life and death,” said Masaru Honma, 73, one of four living siblings of Yaeko Taguchi, a bar hostess and divorced mother who was kidnapped by North Korea 39 years ago. “There is a time limit.”
“这是一个生死攸关的问题，”73岁的本间胜(Masaru Honma)说。“时间有限。”他是39年前被绑架的酒吧服务员、离异母亲田口八重子(Yaeko Taguchi)四个仍在世的兄弟姐妹中的一个。
Honma said he and his family believe Taguchi — who would now be 62 — is still alive in North Korea. They occasionally get snippets of information from defectors, but their faith rests predominantly on the word of one woman: Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korea spy who says Taguchi tutored her in Japanese language and culture so she could pass as Japanese while traveling abroad.
When Kim visited Japan decades later in 2010, she met with Honma, along with another brother and Taguchi’s son. On the back of a photograph taken during that visit, Kim scrawled a cryptic message in slightly awkward Japanese: “Definitely welcome home.”
Kim, in an interview in Seoul, said she had wanted to give Taguchi’s family a thread of hope, and let them know that she believed the missing woman would someday make it home.
Kim, a convicted terrorist who helped plant a bomb on a Korean Air Lines flight in 1987 that killed 115 people, was given a presidential pardon in South Korea, which has since used her for propaganda purposes and to provide information about the North.
金贤姬是一名被判有罪的恐怖分子，曾在1987年参与在大韩航空(Korean Air Lines)的一架航班上安放一枚炸弹，造成115人死亡。在韩国，她被总统特赦，之后一直被用来进行宣传，并提供有关朝鲜的信息。
She says that in the 1980s, she lived with Taguchi in Tongbuk-ri, south of Pyongyang, for almost two years. She has also said that she once met Yokota, the girl who was captured at 13, and that Yokota also had tutored another North Korean spy.
Kim says she has not seen either of the women for more than 30 years, but that does not matter to the victims’ families.
“Kim Hyon-hui said Yaeko is definitely alive,” said Honma. “Even though it’s been a long time since she last met Yaeko, her talk made us feel that she is still alive in North Korea.”
In a recent interview in Seoul, where Kim traveled with five secret service escorts from her home in an undisclosed location in South Korea, she described how Taguchi gave her cultural pointers on table manners, makeup and hand gestures between July 1981 and March 1983.
North Korean authorities say Taguchi died in a car accident in 1986. But Kim said she had spoken to a driver who said he had seen Taguchi alive a year after that.
“I still believe they are alive,” Kim said of Taguchi and the other Japanese abductees. “Those who are compliant and just listen to the North Korean authorities are given basic necessities and treated as foreigners living in North Korea.”
The North Korean government released five abductees in 2002 after Junichiro Koizumi, then Japan’s prime minister, went to Pyongyang for a summit meeting. It also provided death certificates — and in two cases, bones — for eight others whom the North admitted kidnapping in the 1970s and 1980s.
But the families say that the death certificates were faked and that DNA tests indicated the bones did not come from their loved ones. The Japanese government does not officially acknowledge their deaths.
“I don’t think they would easily kill a precious diplomatic card like my sister or Yaeko Taguchi,” said Takuya Yokota, 49, a younger brother of Megumi Yokota.
Takuya Yokota and his twin brother were 9 when their 13-year-old sister disappeared from coastal Niigata. Takuya Yokota still recalls the day she did not come home from badminton practice, and how they helped their mother search for her as dusk fell.
The Yokotas also met with Kim in 2010. “She could not say much because she was surrounded by South Korean intelligence and police,” Takuya Yokota said. “But she did tell my mother, ‘She’s all right, and you don’t have to worry.’” North Korea maintains Yokota committed suicide in 1994.
Kim is somewhat vague about how she knows that either Taguchi or Yokota is still alive.
She said the women had probably picked up classified information from working with spies, so it made sense for North Korea to declare them dead.
But, she said, “I do not think they have passed away, because the reasons that North Korea gave for their deaths are not reasonable.”