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Commuters walk past photos of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korea in 1977, at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, May 9, 2018.
Commuters walk past photos of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korea in 1977, at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, May 9, 2018. (Stars and Stripes)

TOKYO – Japan needs the world’s help to secure the return of citizens abducted by North Korea more than 40 years ago, the government’s top spokesman said Tuesday during an online United Nations symposium.

“Needless to say, the abduction issue is the most important issue for the Suga administration,” said Katsunobu Kato, chief cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The annual symposium – co-hosted by Japan, the United States, Australia and the European Union – has taken place since 2016 to deliver the “real voices” of the families of the North Korean abductees and to discuss ways to resolve the issue.

It was not held last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s event was streamed live on YouTube.

The Japanese government has officially identified 17 people as having been abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and ‘80s, Kato said, though suspected abductees number in the hundreds. None have been returned since five were released in 2002.

“I am extremely shameful and regretful” that more progress has not been made, said Kato, who also serves as Japan’s minister in charge of the abduction issue.

It is believed that the abductees were used to train North Korean agents to pass as Japanese citizens, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Kato said the victims’ families are getting old, so working to secure their return should not be delayed.

One of the family members who spoke at Tuesday’s symposium is Takuya Yokota, secretary-general of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea.

Yokota – brother of Megumi Yokota, who was taken at age 13 in 1977 – urged the North to return all abductees as soon as possible and called on the Japanese government to show strong leadership and take the initiative to make it happen.

His father, Shigeru Yokota, died last year after fighting for the return of his daughter for more than four decades. He, along with his wife, Sakie Yokota, had led the victims association and became a figurehead for the abduction issue.

Takuya Yokota said he hopes his sister will return to Japan so their 85-year-old mother can see her again.

“She is exhausted physically and mentally,” he said. “Please allow her to reunite with Megumi in Japan while she is well and healthy.”

Kato said that Suga is willing to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un without any preconditions.

“Prime Minister Suga is determined to take the lead himself to resolve the abduction issue and establish fruitful relationship between Japan and North Korea,” he said.

But Kato said cooperation from the international community is also needed.

“I strongly hope that this symposium will intensify the momentum of the international society, which urges resolution of the abduction issue as a global issue,” he said.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the U.S. is united with the Japanese people and strongly urged North Korea to release the abductees as soon as possible.

Kato lauded President Joe Biden who, during a U.S.-Japan summit in April, expressed the United States’ commitment to resolving the issue. Kato also pointed to a March resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council that condemned North Korea and called for the abductees’ immediate return.

“This was an important step toward solving the abduction issue,” he said. “I ask continued cooperation by related countries.”

kusumoto.hana@stripes.com

Twitter: @HanaKusumoto

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