TOKYO: The abductions of ordinary Japanese citizens by North Korea back in the 1970s and 80s are a widely acknowledged fact today.
The government of Japan has officially identified 17 victims of abductions by North Korea, while hundreds more were suspected to have been kidnapped.
Japan's top priority in its foreign policy with Pyongyang is to bring back Japanese citizens trapped in North Korea.
The issue is now closely followed by the public and the media - but it was not always the case.
Masami Abe, 70, was the first reporter to write about the abduction issue almost four decades ago.
Since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he was willing to return to the negotiating table with the US and South Korea, Mr Abe has once again been thrust into the media limelight.
In 1980, the former Sankei Shimbun reporter wrote an investigative report linking North Korean spies to a series of mysterious kidnappings by the Sea of Japan and he was accused of writing fake news.
“In the fall of 1979, I was 31 years old. I was a newspaper reporter in charge of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, escort and public security. At that time I heard whispers, there’s something fishy going on in the Sea of Japan. I had no idea what it was about,” Mr Abe told Channel NewsAsia in a rare interview from his farmhouse in a mountainous region about three hours’ drive away from Tokyo.
The reporter went through local newspaper reports at public libraries in Tokyo, and came across an article about an incident by the seashore in Toyama prefecture.
“A couple was attacked by a group of four to five men, put in a bag, left in a pine forest. The men all fled. I thought, what a strange incident,” Mr Abe said.
He went there in the autumn of 1979 to investigate. He found a person who spoke to a possible suspect the day before and he visited the house of the victims.
“I was barred from meeting the couple as they were too traumatised even then. Instead, their parents told me what they heard. They said the attackers were unlike Japanese. They acted without losing any time, swiftly. They spoke just a word while continuing on with what they were doing. Be quiet, they said to the woman,” Mr Abe said of his investigation into the abduction cases nearly four decades ago.
He also investigated local newspaper reports on other couples who had disappeared from the same area. Those couples were never found.
But the circumstances of their disappearances were similar to the one in Toyama. Mr Abe's hunch - they were targeted to be taken across the Sea of Japan, as the items left behind by the attackers, including a bag and a gag, were foreign-made.
“None of these were available in Japan. They were not even legally imported items. They were poorly made from an under-developed country. The items were strange,” he said.
Still, Mr Abe's editor did not approve his reporting and saw the cases as random incidents.
But the young reporter's instinct told him there was something larger behind the mysterious missing persons' reports. He dug deeper. He placed calls to police stations one after another along the coastline off the Sea of Japan.
One station in Kashiwazaki, in Niigata prefecture, did not respond to his query. Mr Abe had a hunch it had a case of a couple disappearing but did not want it to go public.
He made his way to Kashiwazaki anyway.
While in the taxi, he asked the driver if he knew of the disappearance of a couple. The driver took him to the home of the Hasuike family. Their son, Kaoru, a law student, had gone missing, along with his girlfriend.
This new discovery got Mr Abe the green light from his editor to publish his first article on the possibility that foreign spies were involved in the abductions of Japanese citizens. The article alluded that the same organisation was involved in all three cases.
Later, Abe happened to come across a small article on the disappearance of schoolgirl Megumi Yokota. This led to his encounter with Megumi’s parents, Shigeru Yokota and Sakie Yokota.
Their 13-year-old daughter went missing one night in the winter of 1977 in their seaside village in Niigata. Her case later caused a huge political storm in Japan.
But in the early 1980s, Mr Abe’s reports of foreign spies behind Megumi’s and other abduction cases were derided as fake news.
“(People said) it’s a fabrication of Sankei. It’s a lie. It could not happen ... It’s a paradise on earth. It’s a good country, a wonderful country. That’s North Korea. I myself did not even imagine in the early days North Korea was involved. I didn’t even have a bad feeling towards North Korea,” Abe said.
SHIFT IN PUBLIC OPINION
No one took his reporting seriously until eight years later. In 1987, North Korean spies planted a bomb on a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 on board.
One of the agents responsible for the bombing confessed after her arrest that she was trained to speak Japanese by a Japanese abductee.
The North Korean spy’s Japanese tutor was confirmed to be Yaeko Taguchi - a young mother of two who disappeared from a nightclub in Tokyo 40 years ago.
Shigeo Iizuka, 79, is Yaeko's brother.
He carried a photo of her since the day she disappeared in 1978, leaving her two children behind.
“This is two months before she went missing. She was with her neighbours. Yaeko, (her son) Koichiro, (her daughter) Aya. Look at the way she’s looking at the children. You can’t imagine her leaving them behind for North Korea,” Iizuka said while pointing at a photo of Yaeko taken two months before she went missing.
Before she disappeared, Yaeko worked as a hostess at a nightclub in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, Monday through Friday. She was 22 years old.
The manager of the club at the time told the media there were three men who regularly came to see her. He suspected that they were North Korean spies. Her brother, Iizuka, filed a police report.
For years there were no hints of her whereabouts. Then one day, Kim Hyon Hui, the North Korean agent who blew up the South Korean airliner, admitted she was taught to speak Japanese by a woman kidnapped from Japan.
That woman turned out to be Yaeko. The bombing of the South Korean airliner was the prelude to a major shift in public opinion toward the abduction issue in Japan.
Tsutomu Nishioka, Visiting Professor of Reitaku University, is an expert in East Asian affairs. But closest to his heart is the abduction issue. About 20 years ago he founded a support group for family members of abductees.
He has rallied and campaigned for their return, together with their ageing parents.
“I was convinced abductions happened. I wrote a paper in 1991. But there was a taboo in Japanese society back then. If one criticised North Korea, it could draw threats. I was told by many to be careful, you will be under a terrorist attack. I did receive blackmails threatening to kill me,” Professor Nishioka said.
At first, the group's efforts failed to gain much attention. But public sympathy toward the plight of abduction victims and their family members gradually swelled as details emerged. The public was also frustrated by the government’s seeming inaction and inability to deal with Pyongyang.
FIVE ABDUCTEES RETURN
A breakthrough finally arrived in 2002, as Japan and North Korea sought to normalise ties.
During a historic meeting in Pyongyang, then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted the kidnappings to former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. That year, Pyongyang returned five abductees to Japan.
"Abduction started a long time ago. We won't be surprised that people were kidnapped in the 90s too. If I were to tell you what North Korea doesn't want to hear the most, it's that abduction existed in the 90s. It was a taboo to mention. If you look back, in the 1990s, there were many leftists in Japan. Especially those in journalism secured authority. They considered criticising North Korea as a taboo. It's because they were communists. The belief was communists do not abduct,” Professor Nishioka said. He heads the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, a support group for the families of abductees.
The abduction project was the creation of North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung, targeting mainly South Koreans after the Korean War in the 1950s.
In the 1970s, his son Kim Jong Il expanded it beyond the Korean Peninsula. Those kidnapped were often used for propaganda activities or intelligence gathering.
Since 2004, there’s been no progress. North Korea has refused to return any more Japanese abductees and claimed some of them have died.
Their families, and Professor Nishioka, have not stopped campaigning for their return - just like the families of those abducted from South Korea.
ABDUCTEES FROM SOUTH KOREA
When the Korean War ended in 1953, about 80,000 South Korean soldiers were believed to be unaccounted for. Many were prisoners of war.
But not all of them were sent back home.
It’s unclear how many exactly were held back but the South Korean government said hundreds could still be alive – waiting to return home.
Nothing was known about them for decades. The issue only drew attention in South Korea when a few elderly soldiers escaped North Korea into China and finally to the South.
Lee Gyu-il is one of them. He escaped about 10 years ago and is now living in South Korea with his North Korean wife.
He was kept there until his son helped him make his first contact with family members in South Korea through a broker.
He’s now 88 years old but he remembers vividly the day he met his family in China for the first time since his capture by the North Koreans.
“We waited for about eight hours on Sep 16, 2006. And guess who came? I have sisters, two younger ones and an older one. I also have a younger brother. One of my sisters lives in the US right now with her husband. They came all the way. It took them nine hours to come to see me, so we shared a hug all together and cried for a couple hours.
"Of course, I recognised them. I’ve always remembered them. I heard that my mother had passed away, saw photos of her and my father as well,” Lee, a former prisoner of war, told Channel NewsAsia.
"I DON'T KNOW IF HE'S ALIVE OR DEAD"
Lee made his escape in 2008. But there is still a part of him that remains in North Korea as his son and eldest daughter are still there. He tried to bring his son to South Korea, but that attempt failed.
“I spoke to my son in 2009 on the phone. He crossed the river into China and came to the broker’s house to call me. But he was arrested right after he crossed Amnokgang after calling me, because some guy reported him to the security department. He was sentenced to seven years in prison. I never heard back from him. I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. That’s what North Korea is like,” Lee said.
And he can’t forget the other prisoners-of-war who are still there.
“All my colleagues that went with me have passed away. It is me and two friends from my hometown. I met them in North Korea. Although we were in different units, I somehow ran into them. But they all passed away. And as I mentioned, the prisoners of war that are still in North Korea. What’s the point of leaving them there as they are all getting old and closer to death?” Lee said.
The abduction issue has aged along with the former prisoners. It’s not just the prisoners of war who are held against their will in North Korea. There are hundreds of civilian South Koreans who were abducted by North Korea too.
Once in a while, the families of those abducted hold rallies, reminding South Koreans of the issue.
For the last 17 years, Hwang In-cheol has been campaigning for the release of his father – Hwang Won - who was abducted in 1969 when the flight he boarded on a business trip was hijacked by a North Korean agent and flown across the demilitarised zone.
That flight was carrying 50 passengers. The next year North Korea promised to send them back. But only returned 39 of them.
His father was working as a television producer and travelling with a cameraman when their flight was hijacked. Hwang was just two years old when the hijacking took place.
The most heartbreaking part for Hwang and his family is that they know his father is alive, they even know where he lives in North Korea.
The family had news of him through a broker. The last they heard about him was in late 2017.
"On December 1 of last year, I heard that the surveillance in Pyongsong, where my father lives, was too tight and that it was impossible to make any contact with him. So I had made a request to the international community to help me reunite with my father in a third country. In short, my father is in the situation where he clearly wants to come home but cannot," Hwang said.
If Hwang’s father is still alive – he will turn 80 this year.
"LAST CHANCE" FOR ABDUCTEES TO RETURN
Yaeko Taguchi would turn 62 this year if she was still alive.
In 2002, her brother Shigeo Iizuka finally learned about her situation from Fukie Chimura, one of five Japanese abductees released by North Korea.
Ms Fukie told Iizuka she lived with his sister for a while, in the same accommodation in North Korea.
“I heard from Ms Fukie, she was taken to a port in North Korea called Nampo. That means she went there from Kyushu, from Miyazaki’s Aoshima coast. On the way to the port, she was forced to put a bag over her. She was able to tell there were others on the boat. When she reached the port she told the official there she has left behind children. That she needed to go back immediately. But she was told, once you are here you cannot go back,” said Mr Iizuka.
North Korea claims she died in a car accident in 1986. But other sources told Mr Iizuka that she was spotted in North Korea even after the so-called accident. So he has reason to believe she is alive.
After Yaeko went missing, Mr Iizuka and his other sister took her children in.
He adopted her son Koichiro and told his three children never to mention to Koichiro that they were not his real brothers.
“I needed to tell him someday about this. The timing came when he was in junior high school. He was impatient, that time of his life. If I told him then he could have become a delinquent as it was an outrageous story,” said Mr Iizuka.
It was only after Koichiro applied for a passport that he discovered on his family register he was adopted. He was already 20.
Koichiro is 39 now and sometimes joins Mr Iizuka at rallies calling for the return of abductees.
The family fears Yaeko may not be returned at all because she knew too many of Pyongyang's secrets, including the Korean Air bombing. North Korea never admitted it was behind the attack.
It's the same reason many suspect Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped when she was 13, may never be returned too.
Former Sankei Shimbun journalist Abe recently began to write about the abduction issue for a Japanese magazine.
He also published a book on abductions by North Korea - titled Media was Dead.
"I know the families, some our relationships go back 40 years. The strongest feeling I hold is 'I am sorry'. I could have done more. I’ve been ignored. I should not have lost the courage, I should have followed up more. I could have done more coverage. I regret that I did not do enough," Abe said.
The recent flurry of diplomatic activity between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington reignited hope among families of abductees that a window for the release of their loved ones may open.
They have campaigned tirelessly for the Japanese government to pressure North Korea to release the remaining captives.
As the issue drags on and they age, many fear this may well be the last opportunity to bring them home.
"I don't know what will happen in the US-North Korea summit. But this will be the last chance for Japan. It will probably be the last chance for North Korea too,” he said.