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Abduction, espionage, alleged murder and intrigue on the Korean peninsula

How a bizarre Cold War issue between Japan and North Korea is complicating U.S. policy.

Toshiko Masumoto (C), a sister of Rumiko Masumoto, who was abducted by North Korea, reacts at a news conference after meeting with government officials in Tokyo June 13, 2008. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

TOKYO — It was one of the most bizarre episodes of the Cold War.

Men, women and children snatched by communist spies and bundled aboard creaking fishing boats in the most mundane circumstances: on the way home from school, on shopping trips, during a romantic stroll along a windswept beach.

Decades later, Japan is still some way off establishing the truth about North Korea’s abductions of at least 17 of its citizens, spirited away between 1977 and 1983 to the world’s most reclusive state.

There, they were employed as mentors to communist agents hoping to pass themselves off as Japanese; some were allegedly murdered so their identities could be used by spies taking part in missions on the other side of the Japan Sea.

While the rest of the world grapples for an appropriate response to modern-day North Korean security threats – a rumoured ballistic missile test in early April and the development and proliferation of nuclear weapons – Japan simply refuses to let the abduction issue die.

Not that there hasn’t been some progress. In 2002, five abductees were allowed to return home after a meeting between the then Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il.

In an extraordinary mea culpa, Kim apologized for the abductions, carried out on his orders during the regime of his father, Kim Il-sung, but insisted that four of the 17 had never entered the country, and that another eight had died.

They included Megumi Yokota, who was snatched, aged 13, a few hundred yards from her home on the Japan Sea coast in November 1977, possibly after disturbing North Korean agents in the field. According to Pyongyang’s account, she married and had a child, then hanged herself in a psychiatric hospital in 1994.

Japan, though, is convinced the missing abductees are still alive, and that the North is refusing to release them because they know too much about the regime’s espionage operations.

Tokyo has warned it will never accept a nuclear deal with North Korea that excludes a satisfactory explanation of the abductees’ fates, potentially depriving the North of much-needed food and energy assistance from its wealthy neighbour as a reward for disabling its nuclear capabilities.

But Japan’s hardline approach carries a huge risk. Not only could it find itself diplomatically isolated at the talks as other countries rush to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, it could find itself at odds with its closest ally, the U.S.