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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

Soga forever frets over mother's fate


NIIGATA — On a late September evening, Hitomi Soga, one of the five abductees repatriated to Japan from North Korea in 2002, and her daughter Mika sat outdoors with their neighbors to watch a small noh performance in her hometown on Sado Island in the Sea of Japan.

News photo
Holding out hope: Hitomi Soga campaigns in Sado, Niigata Prefecture, on Oct. 7 for the repatriation of her mother and other abductees who may still be alive in North Korea. KYODO

The two chatted and snacked with the others, a semblance of life in normalcy.

But under the surface, Soga, 53, still worries about the fate of her mother, Miyoshi, who, if she is still alive, would be 80.

It has been almost eight years since Soga's American husband, Charles Jenkins, 72, and their two North Korea-born daughters came to Japan to join her and live permanently on Sado Island.

Keigo Honma, Jenkins' interpreter, said that "Soga's expressions have softened (over the years). I guess it's because she has now gotten used to life here and due to the sense of security from being able to live together as a family."

During the 24 years she spent in North Korea after being abducted by North Korean agents in 1978 in the city of Sado, Soga was not allowed to use Japanese. As a result, even now her emails are composed mostly with hiragana. Difficult kanji are a rarity.

But when talking with her two grownup daughters, Soga speaks in Japanese, and even jokes with other people.

Yet the fate of her mother weighs on her mind. Her mother was 46 when she and Soga were overpowered and bundled onto a boat on a Sado beach by North Korean agents. That's the last time Soga saw her and Pyongyang to this day maintains the older woman never stepped foot in the North.

"My heart aches whenever I think about how she is doing," Soga said sorrowfully, as she took to the streets of Sado on Oct. 7 to gather signatures while campaigning for the repatriation of other abductees who may still be alive in the reclusive country.

"I keep thinking about what I can do for my mother but can't come up with an answer," she said.

Soga said that while she continues to take part in signature campaigns and give lectures to call for the return of the other victims, she tries to stay low-key, fearing her actions could jeopardize her mother's safety in North Korea.

Acquaintances describe how now and then Soga would talk about her family: "Mother worked very hard to bring me up. I want to see her. I want to be a dutiful daughter and take good care of her."

Soga's two daughters, 29-year-old Mika and 27-year-old Brinda, learned Japanese after arriving in 2004 and both now work on the island.

Mika accomplished her dream of becoming a nursery school teacher, while Brinda works at a local sake brewery.

The brewery's president, Takeshi Hirashima, 48, had worried that, due to her unique background, tourists might consider Brinda something of a spectacle.

But as it turned out she has been on the job now for four years and is a good worker who interacts with customers in fluent Japanese when working in the brewery's shop, running the sampling and promotion section.

Jenkins, a U.S. Army sergeant who deserted to North Korea in 1965 from South Korea, currently works in the souvenir shop in a museum that preserves Sado's local history. While the language barrier remains a weak point, Jenkins responds positively to requests from many visitors to be photographed together, and also encourages them to buy his shop's wares.

On his days off, Jenkins rides his motorbike and farms.

Together with two dogs they bought in 2009 — a Labrador retriever named Bisuko and a Chihuahua named Moomin, the family lives a peaceful life.

But Soga, who has been working at a home for the elderly on Sado since 2007, still hopes after their 34 years apart that someday she will reunite with her mother.

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