U.N. mission hears from families of N. Korea abduction victims

A visiting U.N. commission investigating human rights violations in North Korea held a public hearing Thursday where the families of Japanese citizens abducted in the 1970s and 1980s shared their experiences.

"I couldn't comprehend what had happened. Megumi disappeared like smoke," Sakie Yokota, 77, told the commission of the time when her daughter was abducted in 1977 at age 13. "We've been trying to rescue her in the belief that she is still alive," she said.

Among the other participants at the hearing sponsored by the Commission of Inquiry, which was established by the U.N. Human Rights Council in March, were Megumi's father Shigeru, Kayoko Arimoto, whose daughter Keiko was abducted in 1983 at age 23, and Shigeo Iizuka, whose sister Yaeko Taguchi was abducted in 1978 at age 22.

"Only the North Korean authorities know how many people were actually abducted," Iizuka said, adding, "I want new steps to be taken, such as (the commission) subjecting North Korea to compulsory investigations."

The hearing will continue Friday, after which the three-member panel, headed by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday afternoon. They are scheduled to leave Japan on Sunday.

At the outset, Kirby said North Korea had not replied to its inquiry as to any plans to send a delegate to the hearing.

The commission was briefed Wednesday by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Keiji Furuya, the state minister in charge of the abduction issue, on Japan's efforts to resolve the cases.

Before coming to Japan on Tuesday, it interviewed dozens of North Korean defectors in South Korea over the past week.

The other two panel members are Marzuki Darusman, a senior Indonesian jurist who also serves as the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights situation in North Korea, and Sonja Biserko, a Serbian human rights activist.

The Commission of Inquiry was established with a one-year mandate to look into "systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights" in North Korea, according to a statement posted on the website of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human rights.

The abduction issue remains a key stumbling block in the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and North Korea, with Pyongyang saying the issue has been resolved and Tokyo calling for a reinvestigation into the whereabouts of the abductees.

Japan officially lists 17 nationals as having been abducted by North Korea, but suspects Pyongyang's involvement in other disappearances. Five abductees were repatriated in 2002.