Relatives of Japanese Abducted by North Korea Promised Strong Government Support

The Japanese government has told families of Japanese abducted by North Korea that the fate of their relatives will not take a back seat to improving ties with the communist state. VOA's Steve Herman reports from Tokyo, where Japan's government has wrapped up its first conference on the subject of the missing.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday told relatives of those abducted by North Korean agents during the Cold War era that his government will not consider the issue solved until all of those taken from Japan return home.

Mr. Abe, speaking at the first government-sponsored conference on the abductions, says there is no more important duty for a prime minister than protecting the nation's citizens. He says the abductions are an unsolved crime of a national importance.

Japan officially puts the figure of those abducted by North Korea at 17, saying they were snatched during the 1970s and 1980s. Five returned home in 2002, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted his country had kidnapped 13 Japanese. Pyongyang maintains that the other eight are dead, but Japan says there has been no proof of that.

Earlier in the week, a Japanese government official told the conference that it is likely an additional 30 Japanese were kidnapped by North Korea.

Shigeo Iizuki, whose sister, Yakeo Taguchi, is one of the eight North Korea claims are dead, says the three-day conference in Tokyo is significant.

Iizuki says, 12 years ago, he could not have imagined the Japanese government hosting such a meeting.

The abductions were not a major domestic issue, and the government and the media long ignored the plight of the missing.

Also at the conference were relatives of those from other countries, including South Korea and Thailand, believed to have been forcibly taken to North Korea.

An activist group in Seoul says that nearly 4,000 South Koreans, mostly men, have been taken north since the Korean War in the early 1950s. The organization claims some 500 are still being held against their will.

After Thursday's conference, Foreign Minister Taro Aso met with representatives of the Japanese families.

Aso says Japan will raise the issue at the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons development, scheduled to reconvene in Beijing on Monday.

Pyongyang has harshly criticized Tokyo for raising the abduction issue in those talks, which also involve the United States, China, South Korea and Russia.

Earlier Thursday, Aso said, even if the parties at the talks agree to provide economic assistance to North Korea, Japan will not give any aid, until the abduction issue is resolved.