For Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was abducted to North Korea in the 1970s at age 13, her "miraculous" meeting a decade ago with Megumi's own daughter in Mongolia was a delight but also a painful reminder of the separation that continues to this day.

Although the 88-year-old Yokota and her husband Shigeru cherished the rare opportunity to meet Kim Eun Gyong, now 36 and "looking so much like Megumi," and her family in Ulaanbaatar in March 2014, their daughter, whom they wished to see most, was absent. Kim, who lives in North Korea, was emotional at the meeting but insisted that, as Pyongyang says, Megumi is dead.

"I was thinking, we came all this way and still cannot meet (Megumi). I was imagining perhaps we were not allowed to meet her but that she was quietly watching us from somewhere in the building" of the Mongolian State Guesthouse, said Yokota in a recent interview with Kyodo News on the 10th anniversary of the Mongolia trip from March 10-14 in 2014.

Sakie Yokota, 88, whose daughter Megumi was abducted by North Korea at age 13 in 1977, gives an interview in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo, on Feb. 20, 2024, with photos of Megumi and Kim Eun Gyong, Megumi's daughter, by her side. (Kyodo) (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

The meeting, which Yokota recalls as "like a scene from a drama," is the closest the Yokotas feel they have come in their decades-long search for Megumi, whose current fate is unknown after being abducted by North Korean agents on her way home from junior high school badminton practice in Niigata on the Sea of Japan coast in 1977.

She is among a number of Japanese whom North Korean agents abducted in the 1970s and 1980s, and Japan has not accepted Pyongyang's official insistence that Megumi is dead.

At the meeting, where political matters were off the table, Yokota chose her words carefully in how she expressed her certainty that Megumi is still alive.

"I told Eun Gyong-chan that your grandmother is unwavering in believing that Megumi-chan is alive, even if it's on my own," Yokota said. "I said I am firmly waiting for the day when Japan and North Korea truly get along and can have talks and everyone, including Eun Gyong-chan...can come to Japan, all together."

Although Kim, accompanied by her then 10-month-old daughter and her husband, said in her response it is only "bad people" in Japan who say her mother is alive and insisted that her mother's grave is near her house, she was in tears as she listened to what Yokota said and held her hands when bidding farewell, Yokota said.

Yokota hopes that just as she was able to meet face-to-face with her North Korean granddaughter, the Japanese and North Korean leaders will also sit down together, especially as speculation has recently arisen that Pyongyang may be signaling its openness to dialogue.

Supplied file photo shows Sakie Yokota (C) holding Kim Eun Gyong's infant daughter, in Ulaanbaatar in March 2014. Kim (L) is the granddaughter of Yokota, whose own daughter Megumi was abducted to North Korea in the 1970s at age 13. (Photo courtesy of Yoshifu Arita's office)(Kyodo)

In what was seen as a rare friendly gesture, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a message of sympathy in early January to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, lamenting a deadly earthquake that hit central Japan on New Year's Day.

While the two nations do not have official ties, cautious hopes for an improvement in the bilateral relationship mounted when the North Korean leader's powerful sister said in a statement issued in February that a visit by Kishida could happen if Japan does not make the issue of the abductions, described as "settled" by Pyongyang, an obstacle between the two countries.

"I think it is extremely important that one person and another person meet and speak about their true feelings. I think that leads to having some understanding, even of a country not well known," Yokota said in the interview near her home in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture.

"Mr. Kishida needs to say directly to Kim Jong Un that North Korea should not continue to engage in crimes against humanity and also tell him that the international community will never tolerate it. That's why I am asking him to hold a summit at an early date," she said.

"Although it won't be easy with a country like North Korea, if the leaders speak sincerely, I think there could be an opening," she said. "Of course it won't be successful in one go...but when people continue talking, I think they begin to have trust in each other."

The case of Megumi has come to symbolize the Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.

The Japanese government officially lists a total of 17 Japanese as abductees, believing they were used by North Korea to teach Japanese language and culture to its spies or to steal their identities for its agents to conduct espionage.

In 2002, five abductees were returned to Japan after then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with North Korea's leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang, in the first-ever summit between the two countries.

Megumi was not among them, and North Korea, while apologizing for the abductions, insisted that she had committed suicide after giving birth to her daughter.

When Koizumi revisited Pyongyang in 2004, North Korea handed over cremated remains it claimed were those of Megumi. However, the Japanese government said the remains were not hers, citing a DNA analysis.

Yokota now lives alone at her home in Kawasaki after her husband Shigeru, with whom she spearheaded the campaign to bring back the abductees, died in 2020 at the age of 87.

Yokota says her decades-long fight for Megumi's return has been a repeat of "expectations, disappointments and anticipations for what happens next."

The Yokotas' visit to Mongolia became an impetus for North Korea to reopen investigations into the fate of the abduction victims.

Two months after the Mongolia meeting, Japan and North Korea reached an agreement in principle in Stockholm for negotiations toward a settlement of the abduction issue. Japan relaxed its sanctions on Pyongyang, which, in turn, promised a full-scale investigation into the abductions.

North Korea, however, repeatedly postponed releasing the survey results and then disbanded its investigation team and suspended its probe after Japan imposed further sanctions in February 2016 in reaction to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.

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