TOKYO - The ageing parents of a 13-year-old Japanese girl abducted nearly 40 years ago by North Korea urged their government on Monday to heed signs of change in Pyongyang in order to find out what happened to their daughter.
Japan and North Korea are set to resume high-level talks next week over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, as well as the fate of Japanese abducted decades ago to help train spies, after a hiatus of more than a year.
Earlier this month, the parents of Megumi Yokota, who was snatched off a northern Japanese beach on her way home from school in 1977, met their North Korean-born granddaughter and great-granddaughter for the first time.
"We think North Korea has changed a bit," Shigeru Yokota, Megumi's father, told a news conference, citing pressure from food shortages and international sanctions. "We should use this opportunity to reach a conclusion."
Megumi is one of 13 Japanese that North Korea admitted in 2002 had been kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. Pyongyang says that eight of them are dead, including Megumi, but Japan wants more information and the issue has been a major stumbling block in normalizing ties between the two countries.
The United Nations released a report last month calling on North Korean leaders to face international justice for crimes against humanity, including the abductions.
The Yokotas had long wanted to meet Megumi's daughter, now 26, since learning of her existence roughly a decade ago, but rejected proposals to meet in North Korea out of concern it would make it seem as if they accepted the explanation of Megumi's fate.
The meeting earlier this month took place in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, a venue that Japan and North Korea often use for unofficial contacts.
"We felt strongly that we didn't have much more time left," Shigeru Yokota said. He is 81 and his wife, Sakie, is 78, but they are among the youngest surviving parents of abducted Japanese. Many others have died.
Looking back on their decades-long ordeal, Sakie said the first five years were the worst.
"I would scream and hit the floor, I would run across the beaches crying out Megumi's name," she said. "How could a person just disappear from the earth?"
Meeting granddaughter Kim Eun Gyong and cradling her chubby 10-month-old great-granddaughter was "like a dream," but they limited talk of Megumi to a few memories her daughter had of keeping a pet cat and how her mother had had to visit the dentist often.
"There was absolutely no information on Megumi, even though that was what we wanted most," Sakie said. "She (Eun Gyong) is our granddaughter, but we had to remember that she definitely grew up in North Korea."