Mystery over deported defector

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Mystery over deported defector

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A file photo of Kyoko Matsumoto, left. In May 2004, North Korea allowed five children of Japanese abductees, right, to leave North Korea temporarily to visit relatives in Japan. [REUTERS/NEWSIS]

Japan said it is trying to confirm whether the son of a Japanese woman abducted to North Korea in the 1970s was among nine defectors dragged back to Pyongyang Tuesday after escaping through China to Laos.

The Dong-A Ilbo reported yesterday that one of the nine defectors aged between 15 and 23 was the son of a woman designated by the Japanese government in 2006 as one of the 17 people abducted by Pyongyang. The report cited a diplomatic source and did not identify the woman by name. It said she was abducted in the 1970s at the age of 29 and was known to have had a son in his mid-20s.

Other media outlets identified his name as Moon Chol yesterday and said he was 23 years old.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s minister of internal affairs and communications, said at a press briefing yesterday that he was “aware of that [South Korean] article” and was “in the process of checking” the assertions.

Suga added, “The Japanese government is making all efforts to collect and analyze information on the victims abducted [to the North].”

Japan’s Kyodo News Agency reported the woman could be Kyoko Matsumoto, who went missing after leaving her home in Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, on the night of Oct. 21, 1977, when she was 29. In November 2006, the Japanese government added Matsumoto to its official list of abductees, according to Kyodo, but Pyongyang has denied she ever entered North Korea.

The nine defectors, seven males and two females, didn’t know each other until they crossed the border with China from North Hamgyong Province to escape hunger and starvation. They ended up in the Chinese city of Dandong, bordering North Korea, for around a year with the support of a Korean missionary couple. Earlier this month, they headed for the border with Laos in an attempt to eventually apply for asylum in the United States. But they were detained by Laotian officials on May 10. Laos handed them over to North Korean agents on Monday, who flew them to the Chinese cities of Kunming and Beijing, and eventually to Pyongyang on Tuesday.

South Korea’s embassy in the Laotian capital of Vientiane and the Foreign Ministry in Seoul were blindsided by the swift operation to repatriate the young defectors. The North Korean agents prepared passports for the nine defectors and tourist visas for China.

Sources in Seoul said Matsumoto, who would be 65 if she is alive, had lived in Chongjin city, North Hamgyong Province, but was recently ordered to move to Pyongyang.

Suspicion is growing in Seoul that the quick, well-choreographed deportation of the nine defectors from Laos was probably because one of them was the son of the Japanese woman.

If one of the defectors was indeed the son of Matsumoto, it will create a diplomatic row between North Korea and Japan.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed last December to resolve the matter of the abduction within his term. At the time, Abe said he would consider additional economic sanctions against Pyongyang if the regime didn’t cooperate.

Japanese cabinet secretariat adviser, Isao Iijima, also called on Pyongyang to return all Japanese abductees during a surprise visit to Pyongyang recently.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said it didn’t know anything about the allegation.

“We are aware of basic information on [the defectors’] identification,” Cho Tai-young, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters yesterday. “However, we don’t know detailed information about them.”

Kim Eun-young, an official at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights who has contacted the Korean ministers who led the defectors in their escape, said there was no child of a Japanese abductee in the group as far as they knew.

“The ministers said they met with the young defectors in China and took care of them for a long time, but there wasn’t such a child of a Japanese woman,” Kim told the Korea JoongAng Daily.

Other civic activists said the quick and well-organized deportation of the nine defectors was evidence of the Kim Jong-un regime’s crackdown on defections in general.

By Kim Hee-jin [heejin@joonang.co.kr]

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