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Japanese parents pine for child taken by North Korea as talks begin

TOKYO — Shigeru and Sakie Yokota may have their best chance yet of being reunited with their daughter — 37 years after she was abducted by North Korean agents.

Their optimism stems from North Korea agreeing earlier this month to break a decade's hiatus and start a probe into the fate of abductees and other Japanese in the isolated country. The appointment of military officials to the investigation and a more active stance by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government are grounds for hope, Sakie, 78, said.

"For the first time, they are approaching the negotiations in a completely different way," she said in the lobby of the apartment building where the couple live in Kawasaki, next to Tokyo. "We are all looking at this and beginning to think it may lead to some progress."

The engagement with North Korea by Abe's administration risks disrupting a united front with the United States and South Korea aimed at halting the North's nuclear weapons and missile programs. Any step toward solving the abduction issue may boost the prime minister's approval ratings, which have dropped since his cabinet passed a resolution July 1 allowing Japan's military to defend other nations.

Megumi, the Yokotas' daughter, is the youngest of 17 people listed by the Japanese government as being kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, while citizens' groups have identified hundreds of missing people who may also have been abducted. North Korea has continued to launch missiles into the sea between the nations despite Japan saying this month it would ease sanctions in return for the inquiry.

North Korea said in 2002 it had abducted 13 Japanese to help train spies and returned five of them, saying the others were dead.

One evening in November 1977 Megumi, then 13, failed to return to her home in the port city of Niigata after badminton practice. Sakie went to the school to look for her, only to find training had ended and her daughter wasn't around, she said in the interview.

Police combed nearby empty lots and pine woods along the coast of the Japan Sea, and a sniffer dog found a trail ending a few minutes from the family home.

The couple had no success with a media appeal to publicize the case. It was 20 years before they heard via a lawmaker that Megumi had been spotted in North Korea, according to a book Sakie published in 2012.

In "Megumi and Me for 35 Years," she describes how the teen's abduction overshadowed the couple's lives and those of their twin sons. Shigeru and Sakie have given more than 1,400 speeches around the country and met at least 10 prime ministers to maintain awareness, and their energy is flagging, Sakie said on July 16.

"It's been a terrible life," she said. "Something happened that no one could have imagined. So many people disappeared like smoke."

Abe's bid to resolve the abductee issue is not the first by the Japanese government.

During a sudden visit by then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, North Korea said it had abducted 13 Japanese, and that Megumi was among those who had since died. Koizumi's second visit yielded the return of some of the survivors' family members, though little further progress was made for a decade.

"The first time around, they said they were going to resolve the abductions, the issues of nuclear development and missiles together," said 81-year-old Shigeru. While past missile launches led to the postponement of talks, "this time time they aren't saying they'll stop talking about the abductions," he said.

The Yokotas are unconvinced by North Korea's assertion that Megumi committed suicide at the age of 28 or 29, citing anomalies in the documents shown as proof of death, and a photograph provided by Megumi's daughter that an analyst said put her at about 40.

A DNA analysis of cremated remains handed over by North Korea found that they were a mix of ashes of two unrelated people, Sakie wrote in her book.

"We don't know what's going on in politics, we just want her back," she said in the interview. "Just give us our child back. We don't need anything else."

Reported with assistance from Takashi Hirokawa in Tokyo.

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