Bones of Contention

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In 2002, Kim Jong Il deep-sixed relations with Japan by admitting that North Korea kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens in the 1970s and held them for decades. He tried repairing the damage by sending five of the abductees home in the following months. The remaining eight, according to North Korea, had died. Last November, Pyongyang returned to Japan the cremated ashes and bone fragments of Megumi Yokota, who was kidnapped in her hometown of Niigata in 1977 at the age of 13, and allegedly committed suicide in 1994. Tokyo ran DNA tests on the remains and announced they weren't Yokota's. Public anger ran white hot: conservative politicians and Yokota's parents called for sanctions against North Korea and the government blocked rice shipments. Pyongyang angrily disputed Japan's DNA test, but nobody paid any attention.

It turns out the remains might have been Yokota's after all. In February, the British scientific journal Nature published an article in which the scientist who did the tests admitted they were inconclusive—and that the remains could have been contaminated with foreign DNA. "The bones are like stiff sponges that can absorb anything," Teikyo University DNA analyst Yoshii Tomio told a Nature interviewer. The technique Yoshii used, known as "nested PCR," also raised doubts: professional forensics labs in the U.S. don't use it because of the high risk of contamination, according to Terry Melton, a DNA expert at Pennsylvania-based Mitotyping Technologies. Yoshii has declined comment and Japan won't release his results. A Foreign Ministry spokesman says the remains were consumed in the tests, so there is no way to redo them. Yokota's father, Shigeru Yokota, tells TIME he doesn't really understand the issues surrounding the DNA tests but that he's "angry that Japan now looks foolish in its negotiations with North Korea." In a toughly worded editorial in its March 17 issue, Nature said an inconclusive test result might be "uncomfortable," but urged the Japanese government to get serious with its science. "Dealing with North Korea is no fun," it wrote, "but it doesn't justify breaking the rules of separation between science and politics."