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Family of woman abducted by North Korea hopes talks will bring closure

By Will Ripley, CNN
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
  • North Korea accused of dozens of abductions of Japanese citizens during the 1970's and 80's
  • Renewed bilateral talks raise hopes for family members
  • Brother and son of Yaeko Taguchi, who disappeared in 1978, look for answers

Tokyo (CNN) -- As diplomats in Beijing discuss reopening the investigation into a string of unsolved kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea, the families of those abducted anxiously wait and hope.

For years, they've been seeking answers in the mysterious disappearance of their loved ones. The bulk of the abductions took place nearly four decades ago and the families of those taken have endured the agony of uncertainty, never knowing what truly transpired.

With talks between Tokyo and Pyongyang that took place on Tuesday in the Chinese capital, those left behind to wonder what happened to their disappeared relatives are hopeful that they will finally get some answers.

Spate of abductions

As diplomats in Beijing discuss reopening the investigation into a string of unsolved kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea, families of the abducted anxiously wait and hope. Yaeko Taguchi was 22 when she vanished on June 12, 1978. As diplomats in Beijing discuss reopening the investigation into a string of unsolved kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea, families of the abducted anxiously wait and hope. Yaeko Taguchi was 22 when she vanished on June 12, 1978.
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According to the Japanese government, North Korean operatives kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens in the late 1970's and early 1980's, possibly dozens more.

Some were kidnapped alone, while walking to and from school. Others were taken in pairs while out on dates, including a couple snatched from the beach after walking to see the sunset.

In 2002, North Korea admitted to the kidnappings for the first time but allowed only five abduction victims to return home to Japan. Information on the remaining 12 was sketchy at best.

One victim's story

One of those still missing is Yaeko Taguchi, who disappeared from Tokyo on June 12, 1978.

The 22-year-old divorced single mother was working nights as a hostess at Tokyo's Cabaret Hollywood, which remains open 36 years later.

"When (Taguchi) disappeared, we thought she just quit and left," says general manager Sueji Kikuchi, who has worked there for over 50 years. "Things like that happened a lot so we never would have thought that she had been abducted."

At the time, Kikuchi didn't know that North Korean operatives were canvassing the cabaret, a fact police later disclosed to Taguchi's older brother, Shigeo Iizuka.

Ideal candidate

"At the time, North Korea had a specific agenda, (and) abducted people that would further this agenda," Iizuka said.

"Yaeko was thought to have known everything that was needed to know about being a Japanese woman; she had experienced marriage and childbirth, and knew about cosmetics and feminine magazines and other trends at the time. At the time, being 22 years old, she had been singled out."

Iizuka didn't know the truth about his sister's abduction for nearly a decade. He and his wife adopted her son, Kouichi, and told him they were his real parents. They never mentioned Taguchi. Her daughter was adopted by another couple, and has never spoken publicly about the situation.

"I promised myself when her son turned twenty, I would tell him the truth," Iizuka says.

Secret revealed

But in 1987, the bombing of a Korean airliner revealed the truth. 115 people died when Korean Air Flight 858 exploded in mid-air, and a North Korean spy, Kim Hyun-Hui, was arrested. She confessed to planting a bomb on the plane, and also revealed the biggest clue yet in Taguchi's disappearance.

"After the bombing, (Kim) testified that she was trained by a Japanese woman," Iizuka says. "Police thoroughly investigated and found her teacher was my sister."

It was later revealed that North Korean agents abducted Taguchi and took her to North Korea by boat.

"I feel anger and hate I can't put into words," Iizuka says. "Why would she be taken (to North Korea)? She was a hard-working single mother who never did anything wrong."

The Japanese government says North Korea claims Taguchi died in a car accident in 1986, but hasn't provided proof, according to her son.

Alive or dead?

"The evidence given by North Korea was questionable," the younger Iizuka says. "There is no clear proof that she's dead. There were no names on the documents submitted.

"There is no clear, accurate proof. North Korea said that she passed away on June 29th, 1986 but there are witnesses that say that she's still alive."

He believes his mother is still alive and is hopeful renewed talks in Beijing between Japan and North Korea could bring answers about his mother. But he fears the North Koreans won't be truthful and won't allow his mother to leave, because she knows too much about the secret training of North Korean spies.

'I just want to come home'

Former abductees told Taguchi's brother and son she's still alive and they say she begged to go home, often weeping for her children.

"I just want her to come home to Japan as soon as possible," her son says. "I haven't seen her since I was born. I only have an image in my head."

CNN has contacted North Korean embassies and missions in nine countries, but has never received responses to inquiries.

North Korea has promised to look into the kidnapping issue before before failing to follow through, most recently in 2008.

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