Photo/IllutrationParticipants watch video messages by Shigeru Yokota and his wife Sakie, representative members of the association of the families of victims abducted by North Korea, at a national convention in Tokyo on Sept. 17. (Takayuki Kakuno)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Family members of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea are calling on Tokyo to separate the decades-long issue from concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, and finally resolve the matter this year.

“I had not expected that we would have to wait this long,” said Shigeo Iizuka, who heads the association of the families of victims abducted by North Korea, at a gathering in Tokyo on Sept. 17, the 15th anniversary of Pyongyang’s acknowledgment that it abducted Japanese nationals in the 1970s and '80s.

“Our family members who have been confined in North Korea for as long as 40 years are going through a lot harder time," he said. "Japan-North Korea relations are now chaotic due to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. But the resolution of the abduction issue should be a separate matter and take precedence.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has repeatedly vowed to resolve the abduction issue while he is in office, attended the first part of the meeting.

He promised to raise the concerns of members during his visit this week to the United States.

“I will call for U.S. President Donald Trump's cooperation on this issue,” he said. “I also want to draw attention by mentioning the issue in my address at the U.N. General Assembly.”

Many family members have expressed resentment over the relatively scant progress to date, and the lack of prospects of a breakthrough.

North Korea admitted to abducting 13 Japanese nationals in 2002, and allowed five to return to Japan the same year. It said the other eight had died. The Japanese government believes at least four other citizens were taken to North Korea against their will.

North Korea said it had no record of the four entering the country.

Family members are particularly aggrieved as they are advancing in years, and many are in declining health.

Iizuka, 79, was hospitalized for about a month this summer. His sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was abducted in 1978 when she was 22.

The meeting marked the first time that Shigeru Yokota, 84, and his wife, Sakie, did not attend such a high-profile forum on the issue together. Their daughter Megumi was abducted in 1977 at the age of 13.

The couple had long been the face of the movement to bring abductees home before they began scaling back their activities due to their declining health.

However, they sent video messages to the convention in which they expressed their fervent desire to be reunited with their daughter.

“I want to see Megumi soon,” said Yokota as if to punctuate each word.

Sakie did not hide her frustration at the lack of progress in getting word about her daughter's fate.

“I could not see you or any other victims despite the passage of 40 years,” said Sakie, 81. “How much longer will we have to be left behind?”

The convention adopted a resolution calling for the start of substantive talks with North Korea to return the victims to Japan by the year-end.

The late Kim Jong Il, father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, acknowledged that Japanese citizens were abducted to North Korea when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a landmark visit to Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002.

The following month, five abductees returned to Japan.

(This article was written by Ryuichi Kitano, senior staff writer, and Daisuke Shimizu.)