Thu, Jan 12, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Kidnappings continue to haunt Tokyo-Pyongyang ties

ABDUCTION SYMBOL A photo exhibition of a girl who was 13 when she was spirited away to North Korea and never seen again is provoking anger among Japanese

AFP , TOKYO

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has no chance to see it, but thousands have flocked to an exhibition here of happy family photos of a Japanese girl kidnapped by North Korea, fueling anger against his regime.

Megumi Yokota was snatched away in 1977 when the then 13-year-old schoolgirl was on her way home. She has since become a symbol of Japanese abduction victims, an issue hanging over relations between the two countries.

The exhibition shows her life before the kidnapping. Among the 70 shots is a close-up of her with a big smile and dimples. Another shows her family at the beach, a year before she was taken aboard a North Korean spy boat.

The images have gripped the nation, with an average of 1,700 people visiting daily until the five-day show closed on Tuesday in a Tokyo suburb. The exhibition will move to Megumi's hometown and elsewhere during the coming weeks.

"I want people to know such a horrible thing can happen to a very ordinary family out of the blue," said Megumi's mother, Sakie Yokota.

"I feel thankful because people have come to understand that Japan is menaced by crimes committed by another country," she said. "We still feel the pain because the question remains to be solved."

A similar exhibition was held in downtown Tokyo in November, sparking an outcry among its 19,000 visitors against both the kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s and their government's reaction.

"I have a daughter of Megumi's age. It would be torturous being in the same situation," pensioner Hirotsune Ozawa said tearfully. "I think the government is too soft on North Korea."

Championing his policy of "dialogue and pressure," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has resisted widespread calls to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang for lying about the kidnap cases.

Japanese police probes started pointing to the possibility of North Korean abductions in the mid-1990s.

But North Korea waited until 2002 to admit to the kidnappings of Megumi Yokota and a dozen other Japanese, who were used to train spies in Japanese language and culture.

Hundreds of South Koreans as well as some other Asians, including those from Thailand and Macau, are also alleged to have been kidnapped by the North.

Five of the Japanese victims and their families have since been repatriated as Tokyo pledged to negotiate a normalization of ties which could bring massive aid to Pyongyang. But Pyongyang says Megumi and the other abductees are dead.

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