Megumi Yokota was abducted by North Korean spies; is she still alive?
The Australian, 17 January 2015
Rowan Callick, Asia Pacific Editor, Melbourne
MEGUMI Yokota was a bubbly 13-year-old when she disappeared on a winter night in November 1977, a couple of hundred metres from her home in Niigata, on Japan’s Honshu Island, while her parents and two younger brothers waited for her to join them for dinner.
The family was living in a two-storey house in a quiet, middle-class area of the port city where Megumi’s father, Shigeru, was the Bank of Japan representative. The region around Niigata is best known for its rice, fish and sake, for its nuclear power station, and as the setting of Snow Country, a classic 1935 novel about an affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a geisha.
Megumi had been to badminton practice in the gym after school – she was a promising player – and then, wearing her grey and white uniform, she left for home with two friends, walking up a quiet street with few lights. The sun had set. One friend peeled off to the left, the other to the right. Megumi reached the top of the hill, where she would have turned left to reach her home in a couple of minutes. But she didn’t arrive.
When Sakie Yokota realised her always punctual daughter was late, she rushed to the school gym, her hopes raised when she heard voices – but it was a mothers’ volleyball team. She phoned the police, and tracker dogs were brought in. Niigata’s police superintendent, Koei Miyamura, says Megumi’s trail was lost at the turn-off. To the left, a short way along the street and then a right turn, was her home. Straight ahead and down a slight descent, past a clump of pine trees guarding a Shinto shrine, lay the grey sea.
“The police were concerned she could have been kidnapped for ransom,” Shigeru says. “They conducted the biggest search ever in the prefecture, but picked up no clues. We contacted our friends at two cities where we had lived earlier. We appeared on five TV networks, showing photos of Megumi. But nothing… People said she was spirited away by ghosts, or by UFOs.”
For 20 years, there was no word. Then a chain of events began that catapulted Megumi onto the front pages – where she remains today, a symbol of Japan’s outrage towards its rogue neighbour, North Korea.
It started in 1997 with a phone call out of the blue from the secretary of a member of parliament. “Your daughter appears to have been abducted by North Korea and is living in Pyongyang,” the official said. When the Yokotas went to the MP’s office they were given a book published the year before containing an article on abduction directives from then North Korean “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il. “The writer was asking for help about alleged cases, including one of a 13-year-old girl seized in 1977 or 1978 on her way home from practising badminton,” says Shigeru. “It said that a spy was spotted by her when he was about to leave Japan after accomplishing his mission. He took her back because he didn’t want her to report to the police. She wanted to go home. She was told she could go back after mastering the Korean language. After she reached 18 she was warned she would never be able to go home to her country, and she broke down.”
The article appeared in a small-circulation South Korean book published by a research institute, so very few people knew of its claims. The editor had come to Niigata and talked to a small audience, who responded that this must be Megumi. Says Shigeru: “We learnt later that the author had obtained this information from South Korea, and that the Japanese government had discovered it in 1995. But it didn’t do anything because it was then engaged in ‘normalisation’ talks [with North Korea].”
The Yokotas went public with the story. Prime-time TV covered it heavily; there were questions about it in Japan’s parliament, and two months later the government acknowledged that several Japanese people had been abducted. “Some people believed at first that it was a right-wing conspiracy and other such theories,” Shigeru says. “We didn’t have further evidence, we were often ignored, but we persisted.”
Over the next few years, information came in dribs and drabs – a North Korean agent who’d defected claimed Megumi was a teacher at a spy school; a captured hijacker said she taught Japanese to high-ranking spies and so has been kept apart; another defector said Megumi knows many secrets which can’t be allowed to get out.
In 2002, five years after the Yokotas’ campaign began and 25 years after Megumi disappeared, then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi went to North Korea for meetings with Kim Jong-il, who admitted agents had been ordered to abduct people from Japan and attributed the actions to “some people who wanted to show their heroism and adventurism”. Megumi had been among those kidnapped, but officials said she had killed herself in 1994 after being told she could never go home.
Diplomat Taisuke Mibae, now director of the abductions office set up by Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, accompanied Koizumi to Pyongyang in 2002 and interviewed some of the abductees there. Sensationally, he was introduced to a girl he was told was Megumi’s daughter by another South Korean abductee, whom Megumi had married and then divorced. Kim Eun-gyong was then 13, the same age as her mother at the time of her abduction. “I told her that her mother is Japanese,” Mibae recalled. “She must have been taught to stay calm; she just repeated that she loved her mother and her mother loved her a lot. But her mother was dead, she said, although she didn’t know how she had died.” Subsequent DNA tests confirmed the relationship.
Two years later, Japanese investigators went to North Korea and met Megumi’s former husband. He handed over a casket of what were said to be her remains. But when the Yokotas had the bones DNA-tested and compared to their daughter’s umbilical cord, which they had kept, the remains were shown not to be hers.
The officials also brought back photos of Megumi’s belongings, including her badminton racquet, and a photo of an adult Megumi. Sakie immediately recognised her natural stance; it was the same as in a photo taken in Kyoto when her daughter was in grade five. In the photo from Pyongyang she was wearing badges with the images of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. “We were so surprised to see that photo – we last saw her in school uniform. It seemed like a story, a fiction. I still feel that way,” says Sakie. “But I also felt very relieved because she looked healthy. I was imagining so many things in my mind.”
Megumi is one of 17 people the Japanese government recognises as having been abducted by North Korea between 1977 and 1983 (North Korea has admitted to taking only 13; other reports put the real number in the hundreds). Five were allowed to return following the talks in Pyongyang 12 years ago, but the rest, if alive, remain trapped in the world’s most secretive state. They appear to have been kidnapped in order to train North Korean agents to pass themselves off as Japanese so they could carry out plane hijackings, assassinations and other acts of terrorism. Excelling due to her youth and intelligence, Megumi is believed to have been introduced into the circle of the ruling Kim family and to have taught Japanese to the current leader, Kim Jong-un. This gave her entrée to a rare, privileged yet also endangered elite, known as “The Admitted”. If she is alive, she knows too much to ever be released.
Those kidnapped were mostly taken on or near a shore and places with clear landmarks. They were knocked out, tied up, thrown into sacks and then into the holds of high-powered spy-boats disguised as fishing vessels. Five of the 17 were taken from Niigata, where there is a tower visible from far out to sea.
Eight months after Megumi was seized, 20-year-old student Kaoru Hasuike was walking along the shore on a pleasant summer evening with his girlfriend Yukiko Okudo, 22. They were surrounded by agents, knocked out and bundled in sacks into a boat. Each was told the other had been left behind in Japan, but after a few years in North Korea they were brought together suddenly in Pyongyang and allowed to marry, because married abductees were viewed as less likely to escape. They had two children. In 2002 they were among the five allowed to return a month after Koizumi’s visit. Their son and daughter were not permitted to follow them until two years later. Now resettled, the couple have had another child and have become an apparently ordinary family. Hasuike, an academic, has built a second career translating South Korean novels.
Hitomi Soga, then 19, was kidnapped with her mother Miyoshi, 46, from near their home on Sado Island in Niigata prefecture. Hitomi was also released in 2002 but Miyoshi was never seen again. Hitomi married Charles Jenkins, a US army defector to North Korea, and they are living back on the island with their two daughters.
Taisuke Mibae, head of Japan’s abductions office, remains confident that the other abductees North Korea acknowledges, including Megumi, are still alive, “and waiting to be rescued”. When pressed, he concedes that “at least a part of our confidence is from intelligence”. It is unclear whether the abductees were targeted or seized opportunistically. “When Japanese coastguards engaged in more comprehensive surveillance, the abductions ended,” Mibae says. “The North Koreans can justify anything. In their mindset, the abductions are a kind of revenge for Japanese wartime sufferings inflicted on them. This helped them legitimise their conduct.”
The issue remains an open wound at the heart of Japan. A popular prime minister, Shinzo Abe has long been a strong advocate of the abductees and their families. When he addressed Australia’s parliament in July last year, he wore a blue-ribbon badge, the symbol of the campaign to bring the abductees home. North Korea – which was feeling isolated internationally – had recently pledged to establish a “special investigation committee” to examine the remains of “all Japanese”, including of abductees, with Japanese officials granted some access. In return, Tokyo had raised the ire of others dealing with the rogue regime by lifting some sanctions.
A Japanese delegation travelled to Pyongyang in October last year to discuss the abductees, the first such visit in a decade. But despite the recent thaw in relations, the visit proved fruitless. Japan’s powerful chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said: “There was no report on the results of its probe.” Abe, however, remains committed. “We are placing top priority on resolving the abduction issue,” he said.
Fundamentally, it is the heartbreaking story of Megumi that is intruding so awkwardly into geostrategic issues otherwise handled behind closed doors. There are few Japanese who do not know who she is. Her story has been told in an anime (animated film), in a manga graphic book, and in a 2006 doco produced by Jane Campion.
Twice a year big rallies are staged in Japan, with strong political participation including that of the PM. They are organised by the National Association for the Rescue of Abductees, whose chairman, Tsutomu Nishioka, claims credit for the fact that abductions poll as the top issue about North Korea, even above nuclear weapons and missiles. “We are telling North Korea: If you don’t return the victims while their parents are alive, the Japanese people will never regard the issue as resolved,” he says. If he were to set foot in North Korea he is sure he would be captured and executed. “I have received death threats, I guess from agents living here.”
Sakie and Shigeru have given 1400 talks on Megumi’s story around the country. They are familiar figures on TV. They have flown to Geneva to lobby the UN and have spoken to politicians in the US. They wanted retired Australian judge Michael Kirby, who recently reported to the UN on human rights abuses in North Korea, to send an investigative team there, but he was barred. “His report encouraged us though,” Shigeru says. “Finally things are starting to move, we think.” Mibae adds: “North Korea never fails to follow what others say about them.”
“Before Megumi went missing, it was a special time,” Sakie says. “She was so interesting, even inspiring, and we had begun to talk a lot. She had always been cheerful and active and fun, and liked joking.” She loved animals, picking up stray cats and feeding them, one day wrapping a frog in clothes and playing with it. “The landscape of Niigata has for me been frozen from that moment, when we realised she wasn’t home on time,” says Sakie, who moved to Tokyo with Shigeru and their two sons five years after Megumi’s disappearance. “It’s a beautiful landscape of pine trees and bays, but one I don’t want to recall. When I go there, I’m flooded with emotion, with sad and bitter memories. I almost wanted to kill myself when I was there, I had no idea what I could do to find her.”
Sakie became a Christian in those hard times and “found a meaning for my life, something very solid. I pray with my new Christian friends, many of them, for our children. And for the people of North Korea, for that country. That’s how I’ve managed to keep myself stable.”
Sakie says that after Megumi disappeared she and Shigeru “struggled very much as a husband and wife. When our family came to the point where we could lead a normal life, when the children had grown up, we learned about the abduction – and again our life totally changed.”
The issue casts Japan as an international victim for the first time in recent history. But fundamentally it is a human tragedy, a story of a family bitterly robbed. Sakie remembers that in 1977, Megumi had “sent us a postcard when she was away on a school trip at New Year, saying to each of us individually that she would be home soon, please be waiting for me. We keep that card.” It was her father’s birthday the day before Megumi disappeared. She gave him a comb. His determined smile flickers off briefly as he pats the pocket where he carries it every day of his life.
If Megumi is alive, she would now be 50. Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, but through other, unspecified channels, the Yokotas were able to arrange a meeting with their granddaughter, Kim Eun-gyong, in Mongolia earlier last year. “She seems very fine and active, and also outspoken like Megumi,” Shigeru says of Kim. “I wonder if she can be that lively without a mother.”
Speed is of the essence now. Shigeru is 82, Sakie is 78. “Other parents of abductees are older than us,” says Shigeru. “They’re ageing fast, in their 90s. My wife is the youngest parent. I’m the second-youngest. Time is running out.”