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Tug of war over Japanese abductees

From CNN Tokyo Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon

The five returnees and their families have been the focus of intense media interest
The five returnees and their families have been the focus of intense media interest

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TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- An international tug of war is brewing over the fate of five Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s as part of a bizarre intelligence gathering effort.

In mid-October the five were allowed to return to Japan for what was originally to be a two-week visit.

During the visit, their children -- and in one case a husband -- remained behind in North Korea.

Now the Japanese government says it is holding talks with North Korean authorities to extend the abductees' visit, announcing on Thursday the five could now stay indefinitely in their homeland.

Some reports have also suggested that Tokyo was considering granting permanent residency to the American husband of abductee Hitomi Soga.

Her husband, Charles Robert Jenkins, is one of four American soldiers who allegedly defected to North Korea in the 1960s. However, officials have said Jenkins is reluctant to leave North Korea fearing he could face extradition to the United States.

The five abductees are the only known survivors of 13 Japanese that North Korea has admitted abducting in the 1970s and early 80s.

Media spotlight

Relatives of the five survivors want them to stay and have their families brought to Japan -- a call that has strong public support.

Since their arrival, a fascinated Japanese public has watched the five abductees re-acquaint themselves with their home country, transforming from awkward visitors into the ordinary Japanese they might have been had their lives not taken a North Korean detour.

Almost every step of their dramatic homecoming has been followed intensely by the Japanese media.

Returning abductee Yasushi Chimura was moved to tears by the intense media and public interest when he returned to his hometown for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.

"I had no idea we had become such a big issue," he said in a brief public statement.

'Human story'

The abductees have left children -- and in one case a husband -- behind in North Korea
The abductees have left children -- and in one case a husband -- behind in North Korea

Keith Henry of the Japan MIT Program says the story had struck a chord with a broad swathe of Japanese society.

"It's such a human story with five faces on it," he says. "So its very, very easy to understand by the average Japanese people -- who on the whole could not care less about what goes on beyond the four islands of Japan."

This massive public concern about the abductees' future has turned Japanese-North Korean diplomacy into a household conversation topic.

Add to the mix: North Korea's recent stunning admission that it has a secret nuclear weapons program.

This, despite the fact that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il made a pledge to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi just a month earlier to abide by past agreements on nuclear disarmament.

Japan has also not forgotten a dramatic missile test in 1998 when a North Korean rocket over-flew Japan.

For Japan the test was seen as a warning sign that the country was well within the reach of North Korean weapons.

Before Pyongyang's nuclear admission became public, Japan was already scheduled to hold talks with North Korea on Tuesday in Malaysia.

The original plan was to start the process of eventually setting up diplomatic relations.

But given the public mood, that can't happen until both the nuclear issue, and the future of the abductees is resolved.

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