This article originally appeared in the Sankei Shimbun morning edition, September 4, 2012.
A suspected case of an abduction carried out by North Korea was confirmed as fact at a summit between the leaders of Japan and North Korea in 2002. Sankei Shimbun had already reported the case 23 years earlier.
On January 7, 1979, the Sankei Shimbun carried the following article above the fold: “Three couples on dates evaporate mysteriously along the coasts of Fukui, Niigata, and Kagoshima –is a foreign intelligence agency involved?” This was the first article to take on the cases of six people abducted in 1978: Yasushi Chimura and his wife Fukie, Kaoru Hasuike and his wife Yukiko, and Shuichi Ichikawa and Rumiko Masumoto. The article was written by Masami Abe, the former managing editor who at the time was a reporter in the society department.
His reporting began with a single line told by someone involved in the investigations: “Something strange is happening along the Sea of Japan.” While searching various local newspapers at the library, Abe’s eye was caught by an attempted kidnapping of a couple on a date in Toyama Prefecture. At the scene were found handcuffs, gags, and cloth sacks. None of the items left behind were made in Japan. He was intrigued by the points leading up to the preparation of these items to commit a crime, and his intuition told him that similar crimes had already been successfully perpetrated elsewhere.
Abe then went to police stations along the coast in search of cases involving couples that had disappeared while they were on a date, and also visited family members: “Did they run away from home? Did they commit lovers’ suicide together?” One by one, the usual scenarios were ruled out.
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While the name “North Korea” does not appear in Abe’s article, there is the strong implication that North Korea was the culprit. Abe conjectured that the motive for the cluster of crimes was to obtain legal identities for use in espionage activities.
In September 1977, the year before the couple-disappearances took place, an incident occurred in which Yutaka Kume was spirited away from the coast near Ushitsu in Ishikawa Prefecture. Shortly thereafter, a Korean resident in Japan was arrested as an accomplice to the crime, and in his home police found a random number table used for decoding messages. The man gave an affidavit testifying that he had received directions from North Korea, and also that Kume had been carrying a copy of his registry papers. The police determined that the abduction had been done in order to carry out espionage activities “on Kume’s back,” as it were, by posing as him.
Abe’s reporting on the three couple-disappearance cases was completely ignored by other newspapers, but he continued periodically checking the registry documents of the missing persons to see if there had been any changes made.
After the 1987 bombing of Korean Airlines Flight 858, authorities discovered during their investigation that former spy Kim Hyon-hui, who posed as “Mayumi Hachiya” to carry out the crime, was educated in Japanese speech and mannerisms by someone named Lee Eun-hye, who it was later learned was actually abductee Yaeko Taguchi. Abe had long suspected that the North Koreans were angling for young, lively Japanese women. As later said, the spies had to become the very picture of “young Japanese.”
Abe had already arrived at the reason behind the abductions and that they were carried out for three main purposes: first, identity theft, second, educating spies, and third, marriage.
In February 1997 MegumiYokota’s disappearance was reported. The article, alleging that a young girl of just 13 years of age may have been kidnapped by North Korea, caused a massive response, and won the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Award in tandem with the reporting from 1979.
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Looking back, Abe says “I believe it was not until North Korea admitted to the abductions during the Japan-North Korea summit that the Japanese public was even aware of the existence of the abduction cases.”
On the other hand, he points out “Young people today seem to know nothing about the abductions. If this doesn’t change, then it will become easier and easier just to assume that the abduction issue is closed. I feel that the passion that Japanese society once had for the abduction issue is fading.”
Even though former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il admitted to the abductions, the days and years stretch on and still the abductees have not returned home. There are still many things left unresolved. Abe touched on a point that he is still unable to understand.
“Why did North Korea admit to the abductions at all?”
This special report was overseen by Masahiko Morimoto and Tomoe Matsuoka