- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2002

TOKYO A band of Japan Red Army Faction radicals who have been living in luxury in North Korea since hijacking a plane to Pyongyang decades ago now want to go home.
In a surprise statement, the four men have said they want to return to Japan where they face certain arrest by September, ending their exile in a suburb of the North Korean capital where they live in sprawling apartments, with cooks, maids and drivers who chauffeur them around in luxury sedans.
Takahiro Konishi, 57, Shiro Akagi, 54, Moriaki Wakabayashi, 55, and Kimihiro Abe, 54, said they decided to leave because they don't want to endanger their North Korean hosts.
"We fear our presence could be used as a pretext to attack North Korea for being a terrorist-supporting regime," said the statement, which was sent to Japanese media and obtained by the Associated Press.
Analysts, however, say they're being kicked out as part of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's attempt to show the world he doesn't support terrorists.
"Pyongyang is effectively handing over the hijackers to try to bargain for what it really wants: help reviving its economy," said Pyon Jin-il, editor-in-chief of the Tokyo-based Korea Report, a monthly academic newsletter.
Decades of international sanctions have ravaged North Korea's economy.
President Bush further isolated the country by branding it as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.
The 1970 hijacking of the Japan Airlines flight with 129 persons the first hijacking of a Japanese plane marked the beginning of an era of high-profile terrorist acts around the world by Japanese radicals.
Wielding samurai swords and carrying a bomb, the hijackers forced the flight, bound for the southwestern city of Fukuoka, to fly to South Korea, where all the passengers were freed, and then on to North Korea, where the crew members were released.
Japan believes North Korea, which welcomed the hijackers, also put them to work helping its spies kidnap at least 11 Japanese nationals to train North Korean agents in Japanese language and culture.
Pyongyang has denied any such activities, but Tokyo has said it won't discuss normalizing relations until the issue is resolved.
The official North Korean Central News Agency said the hijackers' decision to go home was their own.
But the fact the hijackers are considering a return despite the certainty of arrest suggests North Korea may be withdrawing its support, analysts said.
"For North Korea, the best thing would be to have the hijackers go home. They don't work and they aren't much use anymore not to mention, they're a huge financial burden," said Hajime Izumi, a professor of Asian studies at Shizuoka University.
Of the nine men believed involved in the hijacking, three have died in North Korea.
Two others were caught outside of North Korea and sent to Japanese prisons.
The Red Army Faction, formed in 1969, was an offshoot of Japan's radical left student movement of the 1960s.
In 1971, the Red Army Faction merged with another group to form the United Red Army.
Some of its members left to set up the Lebanon-based Japanese Red Army.
Sympathy for their cause declined rapidly, and the radical left in Japan subsequently wilted along with other ultraleftist movements around the world.

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