TOKYO – Five Japanese kidnapping victims who were whisked away in their youth by North Korean spies finally came home Tuesday, tearfully hugging their aging mothers and fathers for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
The reunion marked a major thaw in relations between Japan and North Korea's enigmatic ruling regime, which appears to be easing its long-standing belligerence toward the outside world in search of economic aid.
But Tuesday's homecoming — perhaps the most emotional this country has experienced since troops returned after World War II — was tempered by concerns about the abductees' future and outrage over the deaths of eight others.
The delicate position of the five, all now in their 40s, was underscored at a news conference hours after their arrival on a chartered jet from Pyongyang.
The five — who were not allowed to bring their children with them and who are expected to return to North Korea in about 10 days — all wore North Korean flag pins in their lapels and spoke only a few carefully chosen words.
"I truly wanted to see my family," said Hitomi Soga, who is married to an American defector. She then solemnly stood and left the room where the news conference was held.
"I can't express how happy I am to see my parents' healthy faces," said Kaoru Hasuike, who was a college student when he was abducted while on a date in 1978.
"I'm sorry for making you worry about me for so long," said Yukiko Okudo, who was seized with Hasuike after they met at a library.
They married in North Korea and have raised a son there.
After meeting their families and a crowd of flag-waving supporters at Tokyo's Haneda airport, where they were presented with bouquets of red and pink roses, the five abductees looked tired and a bit bewildered as they walked arm-in-arm from the tarmac with their relatives.
They were taken by bus to a hotel, where they were to spend two nights before returning to their hometowns. Their schedule after that is private and their relatives have asked that they be allowed to spend their time quietly.
Also returning Tuesday were Fukie Hamamoto and her then-fiancee, Yasushi Chimura, who were both 23 when they were grabbed from behind, stuffed in bags and taken away in North Korean boats from a secluded Japanese beach in 1978. They too later married in North Korea and have three children.
"No matter what happens, family ties can't be broken," said Hamamoto's older brother, Yuko. "She was protected by the grace of God."
Soga, who was abducted the same year from a secluded island in the Sea of Japan, married Charles Robert Jenkins, of Rich Square, N.C., in 1980. Jenkins was stationed in South Korea in the 1960s and listed as a deserter by the U.S. military. They have two daughters.
Soga's mother also disappeared, and remains unaccounted for.
The five are the only known survivors of 13 Japanese the North has confirmed its agents abducted to train communist spies in Japanese language and culture. Support groups say the real number of victims could be as high as 60.
Their relatives have bitterly complained that they are not being allowed to return for good and, since they weren't allowed to bring their children, they will not be able to speak freely.
The homecoming comes as North Korea, which is suffering from poor harvests and a barely functioning Marxist economy, opens slightly to the outside world. It has recently begun work on a cross-border railway with rival South Korea and announced plans to create an experimental free-trade zone.
The North's relations with former colonial ruler Japan have also thawed significantly since an unprecedented summit last month between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
In a shocking turnaround, Kim admitted at the summit on Sept. 17 that "elements in the military" had carried out the abductions. He said it would never happen again and that two men responsible had been severely punished.
The revelations confirmed suspicions Japan had held for years. But when Japanese negotiators raised the matter two years ago, North Korea's delegation angrily broke off normalization talks, calling the abductions a lie.
Largely because of Kim's unexpected confession, Koizumi's support ratings soared after the summit, and remain high. But as more details have come out regarding the abductions, and the deaths of the eight others, outrage has spread.
Polls now indicate much of the public believes it is too early for the government to provide the North with much-needed food aid or to go ahead with normalization talks scheduled for Oct. 29-30 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, putting Koizumi in a delicate political situation.
In his statement Tuesday, he vowed not to let up on the North.
"With the temporary return of the victims, we have taken a first step toward the resolution of the abduction issue," he said. "But we still have many remaining issues to be resolved, such as the return of the families together and further investigation of the those unaccounted for."