- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

NIIGATA, Japan At first, Misa Morimoto thought her 20-year-old twin sister, Miho, had just decided to suddenly go off on a trip. Four days later, police called to say they had found Miho's bag and driver's license on a secluded beach.

After nearly 20 years, Mrs. Morimoto may be closer to finding out what happened. And the beach where Miho's belongings were found provided a key clue: It was the scene of a confirmed abduction years before.

Since North Korea's surprise confession two months ago that its spies abducted 13 Japanese in the 1970s and '80s, Japanese police are re-examining dozens of missing-persons cases. They now believe North Korea may have abducted as many as 80 more persons than it admits.

Mrs. Morimoto's sister, police say, is probably among them.

"I've spoken to several experts on North Korea about her case, and they say there is no doubt she was also abducted. More and more, it seems to me that was the case," Mrs. Morimoto said.

Other potential victims include a 27-year-old agriculture engineer who disappeared while heading back to his dormitory after dinner, a 29-year-old noodle-shop employee who vanished on a trip to Europe, and a 51-year-old carpenter who had just left for Tokyo to seek work.

The admissions by communist North Korea have raised hopes that more families will finally learn what happened to missing loved ones. But politics is threatening to close the door on further investigations.

Though North Korea's initial confession that it kidnapped people to teach Japanese language and culture to its spies, and its decision to let five surviving kidnap victims visit Japan, were hailed as a big step toward diplomatic normalization, anger and distrust have set in again.

Tokyo is refusing to return the five and demands that their children and the American husband of one abductee be repatriated as well. Pyongyang has accused Japan of breaking a promise that the homecoming would be brief.

Talks to establish ties are on hold, and North Korea has threatened to stop honoring a moratorium on its test launches of long-range missiles.

Accusations of North Korean involvement in the abductions are more than a decade old, and normalization talks broke down two years ago when North Korean negotiators stormed out, claiming their country had no part in the disappearances.

Because the countries had no formal ties and because Japan had little proof, Tokyo had been reluctant to push the issue. But now with public outrage swelling, it is giving the matter its focused attention.

"We will raise cases as we see necessary in our negotiations with North Korea," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

The focal point of the investigations is the Niigata area, which has some 225 miles of coastline facing North Korea and is believed to be where many of the kidnappings occurred.

On Oct. 9, the police formed a 70-member task force now investigating more than 30 cases that may have a North Korean link, said police official Kesaji Fujiki.

He said inquiries rose dramatically after Sept. 17, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and first admitted the kidnappings.

But police say they still have little to go on.

"The people who carried out the abductions never left any evidence at the scene," Mr. Fujiki said. "It was as though the victims were simply spirited away."

The North Koreans preferred singles and people with no relatives, who were easier to uproot unnoticed. Noodle-shop employee Minoru Tanaka, for instance, had been raised in an orphanage.

Had Mrs. Morimoto and a nationwide support network of victims' families not been so persistent, her sister, Miho Yamamoto, might never have been listed as a potential kidnap victim of the North Koreans.

Mrs. Morimoto and her parents passed out fliers near the secluded beach where Miho's belongings were found. They asked passersby for help.

"I began to think I needed to look into this for myself or I would never see my sister again," Mrs. Morimoto said by telephone from her home near Mount Fuji.

The support network has pushed the abduction issue to the forefront of Mr. Koizumi's agenda through rallies, media interest and a petition signed by thousands. It has also been instrumental in matching missing persons in Japan with witness accounts of Japanese in North Korea.

Police say Miho's disappearance seemed unusual from the outset.

"It would be different if there was a motive for Miho to run away from home or to commit suicide, but there wasn't any," said Mr. Fujiki, the police official. "She disappeared one day all of a sudden, and we haven't been able to find any information on her anywhere in Japan since."

But most suspicious of all, say police, was the place where her belongings were found.

The beach and nearby town of Kashiwazaki were likely used as a base by North Korean agents, Mr. Fujiki said. It is isolated, and sneaking ashore is easy, but there are enough roads and buses to make it simple to move around.

The Kashiwazaki beach was also the scene of one other confirmed kidnapping incident.

Kaoru Hasuike and Yukuiko Okudo, two of the 13 Japanese that North Korea has admitted kidnapping, were on a date 24 years ago when agents grabbed them, stuffed them into black bags and took them by boat to North Korea.

Mrs. Morimoto has passed pictures of her twin at age 20 and of herself she is now 38 to the Hasuikes and the three other Japanese kidnap victims now in Japan.

"I want to know what kind of life she's lived all these years," Mrs. Morimoto said. "I just want to talk to her."

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