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Friday, May 14, 2004

COMJAN 'abduction' list grows -- despite lack of evidence


Staff writer

OSAKA -- On the afternoon of Feb. 1, 2003, 42-year-old Naruki Okita, operator of a small marine transport company in Taisho Ward here, showed up near the docks of Izumi Kita with his luggage in tow.

Okita stopped off at a local bar, where he left his luggage and went with a bar employee to another watering hole. The two parted company near the waterfront in the early evening.

That was the last time anybody saw Okita. A four-day search of Osaka harbor failed to dredge up a body.

Okita's name is now on a list compiled by the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Kidnapped to North Korea (COMJAN), even though police say there is virtually no evidence to show he was kidnapped -- much less to North Korea.

"It's tough to say what happened to Okita. We are still treating it as a missing persons' case," an Osaka police official said on condition of anonymity.

The fact that Okita is listed as a possible kidnap victim creates political headaches for the central government in its efforts to deal with North Korea. COMJAN has the backing of many Diet members and local government officials, as well as those who lobby on behalf of known and suspected abduction victims and their relatives.

All have long pressed Tokyo to investigate "all possible abductions" and to force North Korea to cooperate before providing aid or normalizing relations.

This agenda is pushed regardless of how flimsy the evidence -- if any exists at all -- connecting a missing person to North Korea might be.

In November's House of Representatives election, the abductions was taken up as a campaign issue by many candidates -- both in the ruling and opposition camps.

The same thing could happen in the House of Councilors election in July, with Teruaki Masumoto, a brother of one of the abductees, stating he may run in the election as an independent.

But how many Japanese have been abducted by North Korean agents? North Korea claims 13, five of whom have returned. The Japanese government's official list now stands at 15.

After conducting its own investigations, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, a nongovernmental group working on behalf of relatives of abduction victims, claims that in addition to the 15 the Japanese government recognizes, there is a very high probability that another eight were also kidnapped.

Yet COMJAN claims that up to 100 Japanese are likely to have been abducted and is currently investigating nearly 400 "possible" kidnappings.

Since January 2003, it has released public lists of missing Japanese it claims may have been kidnapped.

In about a dozen cases, those missing were eventually found alive, or were identified as having died in Japan years ago. Of the 400 names under investigation by COMJAN, 192 have been publicly released. Some disappeared as long ago as 1949, while the most recent names on the list, including Okita's, disappeared last year.

Evidence that those on the list were abducted by North Korea is often speculative, and COMJAN officials admit that it is particularly difficult to track down information relating to cases from many years ago.

But the group insists this is why the government should remain firm in demanding that North Korea provide answers and assistance in clearing up these cases.

"The Japanese government should not be afraid to force North Korea to investigate what happened to those who may have been kidnapped, even when the direct evidence is slim, before normalization of relations takes place or aid is given," said Kazuhito Araki, who heads COMJAN.

If (Prime Minister Junichiro) Koizumi is really going to Pyongyang to pick up the family members of the five who returned in October 2002, he could help our cause by insisting that posters of those Japanese who we believe have been kidnapped to North Korea be placed in and around Pyongyang," he said.



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