TOKYO - A UN team probing North Korea's human rights record Thursday heard of the pain experienced by Japanese families when their loved ones vanished, abducted to train Pyongyang's spies.
The three-member Commission of Inquiry chaired by retired Australian judge Michael Kirby met the parents of Megumi Yokota, who has become an iconic figure in Japan after her kidnapping by North Korean agents in 1977 when she was 13.
"Megumi just disappeared like a puff of smoke, and we had no idea where she had gone," said her 77-year-old mother Sakie Yokota. "It was such a tormenting period."
The three commission members also met families of others who were abducted - Keiko Arimoto and Yaeko Taguchi, both in their early 20s when they were kidnapped - among 17 people whom the Japanese government has officially recognised as having been taken to North Korea.
The commission - the first UN expert panel to officially examine North Korea's rights record - spent five days in Seoul collecting harrowing testimony of rights abuses in the isolated state.
Megumi's father Shigeru, 80, expressed hope that the commission would make progress on an issue that provides the backdrop to all exchanges between Tokyo and Pyongyang, and one that generates a visceral nationwide response.
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 its agents had snatched young Japanese in what Tokyo said was an operation to train spies in Japanese language and customs.
Journalist Kenji Ishidaka said at the public hearing Thursday that Pyongyang agents also abducted Japanese nationals to steal their identity and obtain Japanese passports.
Following a summit between then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim Jong-Il, the late North Korean leader, five of those who were taken were allowed to return to Japan. Their Korea-born offspring were allowed to come to Japan later.
But suspicions persist in Japan that the isolated state has not come clean about the scope of its abductions and the issue colours all of Tokyo's dealings on North Korea.
The North, which strongly denies allegations of rights abuses, has refused to recognise the commission and barred it from visiting.
Kirby has repeatedly appealed to North Korea to grant his team access.