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Accounted for, at Last

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Megumi Yokota was last seen pausing at a traffic light by her home in Niigata, a badminton racquet stuffed in a white bag and a black schoolbag clutched in her hand. Then she vanished without a trace. That was 25 years ago. Her mother Sakie thought she would never know where her 13-year-old daughter had gone, until she read a series of articles in a newspaper three years later suggesting that North Korean agents were snatching Japanese citizens off the streets and whisking them to their motherland. Sakie's suspicion turned into conviction when a North Korean defector to South Korea told officials he had seen Megumi in Pyongyang on five occasions.

Tales like Megumi Yokota's have long aggravated the historically rancorous relations between North Korea and Japan. North Korea's Stalinist regime had consistently denied that it had anything to do with a series of disappearances in Japan two decades ago. No longer. In a stunning about-face, North Korean President Kim Jong Il confessed at a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi last week in Pyongyang that his country's spies had indeed abducted 13 Japanese citizens from 1977 to 1983. He blamed the kidnappings on special-forces agents "carried away by a reckless quest for glory," apologized for their actions and assured Koizumi that they had been punished. (Kim, according to most analysts, led the special forces for a stretch during that period.) Having got that off his chest, Kim promised a moratorium on his country's provocative missile tests and agreed to let international inspectors visit its nuclear facilities. These moves could help bring North Korea, which the Bush Administration counts as one of the "axis of evil" states, out of its long political isolation.

Still, it was news of the abductees that held Japan in thrall last week. The roster of kidnapping victims includes a college student who was smuggled out of London, a carpenter and a chef. Kaoru Hasuike, a law student, was abducted in 1978 along with his girlfriend Yukiko Okudo, then 22, while they were on a date. The North Koreans say eight of the abducted, including Megumi, are now dead. Most were in their 20s and 30s when they died, and North Korea claims each succumbed to either disease or natural disasterŚtwo on the same day. Many Japanese are skeptical, believing the North Koreans murdered them to get rid of the evidence.

Kim confirmed the prevailing theory that the abductees were used to teach Korean spies how to impersonate Japanese citizens. One victim, Yaeko Taguchi, a Tokyo bar hostess who had just dropped off her children at day care when she disappeared at age 22, is thought to have trained an agent named Kim Hyon Hui. This agent posed as a Japanese citizen in 1987 to board a South Korean passenger jet and plant a bomb in its cabin. Taguchi, the North Koreans say, is now dead.

During the Pyongyang summit, Japanese diplomat Kazuyoshi Umemoto met with Megumi's putative daughter and a man who introduced himself as Kaoru Hasuike, as well as with three other people who said they were abductees. Hasuike told Umemoto that he and Okudo now have two children and that he works in a research center in Pyongyang. He added that he's uncertain about returning home. The idea that anyone would voluntarily remain in North KoreaŚwith its totalitarianism and povertyŚhas aroused suspicions in Japan.

Relatives of the victims aren't buying anything North Korea says about the abductees. They want independent confirmation that the people on Kim's list are who the North Koreans claim they are. Umemoto's only proof that he was speaking to Megumi Yokota's daughter, for instance, was a dated photo of Megumi and an old badminton racquet. Yet the Yokotas have not given in to despair. If the girl in Pyongyang really is their granddaughter, says Megumi's father Shigeru, he and his wife are ready to go there to meet her. "We'd like to find out how Megumi got married and what her life was like."