It was supposed to have been a quiet date on the beach for two young people with plans to spend the rest of their lives together.
In late July 1978, Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, walked several hundred metres along the sand, making sure to avoid a group of rowdy drinkers. After finding a quiet spot, they sat side by side to watch the sun set over the Sea of Japan.
Hasuike, then a 20-year-old law student, lit a cigarette as he and Okudo, a company employee two years his senior, chatted and admired the view.
Seconds later, a man approached from behind and asked, in accented Japanese, to borrow his lighter. Two other men appeared, restraining Okudo and punching Hasuike after he resisted. As soon as the coastline was in darkness, the couple were bundled on to a small boat and taken to a fishing trawler moored offshore.
“At first I thought that my girlfriend was going to be raped and that I would be killed,” Hasuike says, standing close to the spot where their ordeal began 41 years ago. “I was paralysed with fear.”
Hasuike and Okudo were injected with a sedative, placed inside sleeping bags and kept in the boat’s hold. Two days later, they arrived in North Korea, the victims of the communist regime’s ambitious plans to create a cold war network of spies that would operate in Japan, its hated former colonial ruler.
The couple married in North Korea in 1980 and returned to Japan in 2002 after the regime’s then leader, Kim Jong-il, admitted the country had abducted more than a dozen Japanese citizens to teach their language and customs to Pyongyang agents.
Now Hasuike, 61, believes North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear power and talks between its ambitious leader, Kim Jong-un, and Donald Trump, offer the best hope yet of the return of abductees Japan believes are still in North Korea.
Japan’s government lists 17 people as having been abducted by North Korea during the 70s and 80s, including five from Niigata prefecture, whose coastline is just over 500 miles from North Korea.
They include Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old schoolgirl who was snatched as she walked home from after-school badminton practice in 1977.
Five abductees, including Hasuike and Okudo, were allowed to return to Japan after a landmark summit in Pyongyang between Kim and the then Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.
Kim apologised for the abductions but his officials insisted that eight victims had died, most in a series of bizarre accidents and that four others had never entered North Korea. Yokota, they claimed, had killed herself in a psychiatric hospital in the early 1990s.
But Japan’s government and the victims’ families refuse to believe that they are dead, citing forged death certificates and sightings of victims after they had supposedly died. DNA tests on remains North Korea claimed were those of Yokota were found to belong to people unrelated to the abductions.
Her younger brother, Takuya Yokota, is convinced that the North is holding his sister and other Japanese citizens hostage because they know too much about the regime.
“My parents are in their 80s and my father is chronically ill in hospital,” said Yokota, who heads an association of families whose members were abducted by North Korea. “They’ve waited more than 40 years to see their daughter. I won’t stop until she is back. I would welcome her home, but the first words I would say to her are ‘I’m sorry’.”
Trump has reportedly raised the abductions in two of his three meetings with Kim. Hasuike, though, believes a breakthrough will come only after the leaders have made substantial progress on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, paving the way for a meeting between Kim and the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Abe, a hardliner on North Korea, insists that normalising diplomatic ties and providing Japanese aid are contingent on a resolution of the abduction issue.
After his arrival in North Korea, Hasuike, an associate professor of Korean language and culture at Niigata Sangyo University, was initially trained to become an agent, undergoing daily instruction in the Korean language and the regime’s ideology. His apprenticeship ended when two women abducted from Lebanon who had been trained as agents escaped while on assignment in Yugoslavia, prompting the regime to concede that its plan to build a global network of spies carried too many risks.
Hasuike was then enlisted to teach Japanese to spies, but that programme ended when a suspect in the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner revealed she had been taught Japanese by a woman thought to be an abducted Japanese citizen, Yaeko Taguchi. The truth of the regime’s abductions was out.
Hasuike spent his final years in North Korea translating articles from Japanese newspapers and magazines. He and Yukiko, who now works at a kindergarten, had a son and a daughter in North Korea. Now in their 30s, their children joined them in Japan in 2004 and have “come to terms” with their parents’ past, he says.
Intense media and public interest in the abductions mean Hasuike will inevitably make more visits to the beach where his life was turned upside down on a warm summer’s evening four decades ago.
“I don’t like coming back here,” he says. “But I feel that I have to. Even now, after all this time, it’s important for people to know what happened. And I’m one of the few people who can tell the truth about North Korea’s crimes.”