TOKYO — Koichiro Iizuka only knows her as Yaeko-san, a pretty woman smiling in an old photo and in stories told by his relatives. A 16-month-old baby, he was at a childcare center in downtown Tokyo with his 3-year-old sister, waiting to be picked up by their mother. She never returned.
Yaeko Taguchi, then 22, was kidnapped by North Korean agents in June 1978, presumably on her way to the nursery from a night job she was working to raise the children as a divorced mother. The baby boy was adopted by Taguchi’s brother, Shigeo Iizuka, and raised as his fourth child; his sister was adopted by an aunt.
Taguchi’s whereabouts weren’t known for nearly a quarter century until North Korea, after years of denials, acknowledged in 2002 abducting about a dozen Japanese citizens. Iizuka, now a 40-year-old computer programmer, wants President Donald Trump to learn about the ordeal of the relatives of those abducted when he meets some of them in Tokyo on Monday.
Japan says North Korea snatched at least 17 people in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese culture and language so they pass as Japanese and spy on South Korea. Pyongyang has admitted abducting 13 of them, including Taguchi, and has allowed five to visit Japan — they stayed instead of returning to the North. North Korea said the other eight had died, and no other abductee has since returned.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made resolving the abduction issue a top policy goal that he pledged would not be put to rest until all victims return home. There is no sign of any progress amid new tensions created by North Korea’s escalating missile and nuclear threats, making it more difficult to seek answers from Pyongyang.
Everyone is getting older, and Iizuka is frustrated. He still believes his mother, who would be 62, is alive, largely because the North hasn’t provided reliable proof of her death. North Korea only told Japan that she was killed in a car accident in 1986.
Trump’s engagement has breathed new hope that the fate of the abductees will be finally exposed and possibly all the remaining Japanese returned home in one group, according to Iizuka. He wants to be part of the meeting with Trump and some relatives on Monday.
“I want to tell him that our loved ones were kidnapped to North Korea and we need help. I want to ask President Trump to join our effort to rescue the victims and bring them back to Japan,” Iizuka told The Associated Press in an interview. “It’s wrong that families cannot be together for 40 years, because we are forcibly separated by a certain country.”
Iizuka says he was too young to remember anything about his mother. “I only know her through the pictures and the stories I heard from my dad and uncle … But I don’t know anything about her, such as her gestures, her taste, and what she liked to study at school.”
Trump is the third American president to meet abductee families, following George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The mysterious death this year of American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in Pyongyang and returned home with brain damage only to die days later, has raised questions about the North’s human rights conditions, Iizuka said.
He hopes Trump would be able to talk directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“When that happens, I hope President Trump brings up the abduction issue and tells Kim Jong Un that the problem must be resolved. I think it’s most important,” Iizuka said. “In North Korea, Kim Jong Un is the only one who makes a decision, and Mr. Trump’s cooperation on the abduction issue would be a huge support.”
He hopes his father, Shigeo, gets to see his sister again in their lifetime. And Iizuka already decided what he will tell her when she returns home one day.
“I want to call her mother,” he said. “She hasn’t heard me say that to her yet.”
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