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Elderly relatives of Japanese abducted by North Korea see probe as last chance to rescue them

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TOKYO — For many families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago, a renewed investigation by the North is most likely their last chance to see their loved ones. The elderly relatives say they are pinning all their hopes on the effort before time runs out.

After decades of waiting, they saw a door open in May when Japan and North Korea agreed on a renewed investigation of at least a dozen people Japan believes were abducted. And on Friday, the long overdue investigation began in Pyongyang.

Sakie Yokota said she still believes her daughter Megumi, abducted nearly 40 years ago, is alive even though North Korea said she's dead. Like others, Yokota says she is becoming desperate, because she is already 78 and her husband, Shigeru, is 81.

North Korean agents abducted Megumi from Japan's northern coastal town of Niigata in 1977 as she was walking home from school badminton practice when she was 13.

"All along I've believed Megumi is alive and that has never changed. I want her to return to Japan alive, no matter what her condition is," Yokota said. She said the probe should lead to concrete results soon, or chances for the elderly relatives to learn about their loved ones' whereabouts would be lost forever.

"We don't have much time left. I hope to see that happen as soon as possible, not months or years from now, because we are all getting old," she said.

After years of denial, North Korea acknowledged in 2002 that it had abducted Japanese citizens to train its spies in the 1970s and 1980s, and eventually returned five of them. It said others had died or never entered the North. Tokyo disputes that and wants an investigation into at least 12 abductees, including Megumi Yokota.

PHOTO: Japan's Abduction Issue Minister Keiji Furuya, left standing, speaks to the Japanese abductees' family members, seated right, prior to a briefing in Tokyo, Friday, July 4, 2014. Japan took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea on Friday by agreeing to lift some of its sanctions, as North Korea announced the details of a new probe into the fate of at least a dozen Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents decades ago. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
Japan's Abduction Issue Minister Keiji Furuya, left standing, speaks to the Japanese abductees' family members, seated right, prior to a briefing in Tokyo, Friday, July 4, 2014. Japan took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea on Friday by agreeing to lift some of its sanctions, as North Korea announced the details of a new probe into the fate of at least a dozen Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents decades ago. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

North Korea, in a report by its Korean Central News Agency, said it will conduct a wide-ranging investigation including not only the abductees but also the remains of thousands of Japanese who died in Korea at the end of World War II, as well as any survivors from that era. Japan colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945.

Private support groups say hundreds of Japanese citizens were abducted in addition to the 12, and suspect many may still be living in North Korea. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed not to relent until all the abductees are returned or accounted for.

Teruaki Masumoto, 58, said he thinks this is the best chance to take his sister Rumiko out of the isolated Communist nation. Rumiko, who vanished with her boyfriend after driving to a nearby beach to see the sunset, would be 60 this year. They are among the 12 abductees recognized by the government.

"This is our last chance," he said. "We cannot wait any longer, not even another year. And this time we cannot afford to lose."

In response to the renewed investigation, Tokyo eased some sanctions on North Korea. It lifted a ban on North Koreans visiting Japan, allowing them in on a case-by-case basis, and made it easier for Japanese and ethnic Koreans in Japan to travel to North Korea. It also raised the reporting limit for money taken or sent to North Korea. It also approved port calls by North Korean ships for humanitarian purposes, limited to the delivery of food, medicine and clothes in small amounts.

Japan still abides by separate U.N. sanctions imposed because of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. They include an arms trade ban, a freeze of North Korean assets, a ban on people exchanges and restrictions on education and training.

Japanese officials say the eased sanctions will not give a significant economic boost to North Korea or weaken the impact of international efforts to punish and isolate the North for its nuclear weapons development.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said a resumption of six-nation talks on North Korea's denuclearization is too early to consider, despite signs of improved relations between North Korea and Japan.

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PHOTO: Japan's Abduction Issue Minister Keiji Furuya, center, speaks to the Japanese abductees' family members prior to a briefing in Tokyo, Friday, July 4, 2014. Japan took a tentative step toward improved relations with North Korea on Friday by agreeing to lift some of its sanctions, as North Korea announced the details of a new probe into the fate of at least a dozen Japanese believed to have been abducted by North Korean agents decades ago. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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