NIIGATA, Japan—In the annals of bizarre international conduct, little can match the North Korean tactic of deploying body snatchers to Japan to capture people and whisk them away to teach Japanese and train spies in the Hermit Kingdom.
Thirteen-year-old Megumi Yokota was walking home from school, clutching a badminton racket, when she disappeared in 1977.
For more than two decades, police were at a loss over what happened.
"Nobody ever imagined that another country had come and kidnapped this girl," said Yoko Yamada, a politician in this port on the Sea of Japan.
By some counts, nearly two dozen others were snatched in the late 1970s and 1980s, often nabbed while strolling near the sea, stuffed into bags and taken to vessels offshore.
In 2002, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted the practice and apologized. But after allowing a few abductees to return to Japan, he's stonewalled on the rest, saying that the victims, including Megumi Yokota, had died or killed themselves. North Korea now says it won't talk about the abductions anymore.
But recently its assertions have crumbled fast, allowing the Japanese government and a grassroots organization to piece together evidence implicating specific North Koreans as perpetrators or collaborators of the abductions. They've also woven a surprising genetic link that's united families in Japan and South Korea to the offspring of Megumi Yokota and another kidnapping victim.
The evidence is stiffening the Japanese government's resolve toward North Korea and hardening public opinion. Officials recently plastered 200,000 posters at schools, railway stations, airports and city halls across the country. The posters say "Japan Will Not Desert (You)" in block letters and show a lone shoe on a road leading to the ocean.
Historians may look back at the anguish of the victims' families and their efforts to raise public awareness about the abductions as a key moment in Japan's efforts to forge a more assertive self-identity. More than 5 million Japanese have signed a petition demanding economic sanctions against North Korea, partly in response to the pain of Sakie and Shigeru Yokota, Megumi's parents.
For decades, the Yokotas felt abandoned.
"I survived this hardship for 20 years until I found out she had been abducted by North Korea," Sakie Yokota said.
Megumi's former elementary school principal, Yoshie Baba, 85, retraced the schoolgirl's short walk with two friends after badminton practice on Nov. 15, 1977, a blustery autumn evening.
"One girl turned off here," Baba said, signaling down an alley. "The other girl turned off here." Megumi kept walking toward the wooden home assigned to her father, a Bank of Japan employee. Suddenly, she vanished. Police dogs were deployed, using scent from Megumi's pajamas, but they lost the trail a block from her home.
Most Japanese now know the horrific story of Megumi's abduction and her 40-hour transit aboard a ship to North Korea. Megumi was thrown into the hold, where she scratched the walls so fiercely that her fingernails fell off and her hands bled, according to the written account of a North Korean defector.
"I felt like throwing up when I read that part," said Sakie Yokota, who's now 70 and lives with her 73-year-old husband near Tokyo.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, a confidant and former business partner of President Bush, last month visited Niigata, a port of 810,000 people, to see where Megumi disappeared and to talk to victims' relatives.
"This was just even more moving and emotional than I expected it to be," Schieffer said afterward. "You just cannot have governments preying upon innocents and taking the citizens of one country and the children of one country to another."
Little is known of how Megumi Yokota, who would be 41 years old now, has lived in the last Stalinist state in the world.
"There is a rumor that she is a tutor for Kim Jong Il's children," said Takayoshi Mizuno, chairman of the Niigata branch of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, a grassroots group with a high profile in Japan.
The government says it believes that most of the Japanese abductees were taken in order to steal their identities, allowing North Korea agents to travel the world, or to help train North Korean spies in speaking and acting like Japanese. North Korean intelligence agents also are accused of snatching a handful of Lebanese, Romanians and Thais. In addition, the North holds 468 South Koreans (many of them fishermen accused of straying into North Korean waters) captured since the armistice that ended the fighting in Korea in 1952.
Ceaselessly sensitive in its dealings with the North, South Korea doesn't even dare to use the word "kidnap" to describe its abducted citizens.
A sturdy, direct woman who turned to Christianity to deal with her grief, Sakie Yokota has no such sensitivities.
She cites North Korea's concentration camps, its quest for nuclear weapons and its periodic famines in declaring that its leaders are "enemies of humanity." She relentlessly organizes public events to talk about her daughter's abduction.
The Yokotas' efforts have led to a cascade of developments in recent weeks, keeping the issue on newspapers' front pages.
The events are the culmination of a fateful summit meeting on Sept. 17, 2002, when Kim Jong Il admitted to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that his nation had kidnapped Japanese citizens.
At the time, Koizumi was shown Kim Hye-gyong, a teenager living in North Korea who was identified as Megumi Yokota's daughter. Two weeks later, Japanese investigators took samples of the girl's hair and blood, eventually confirming her identity.
North Korean officials said Megumi Yokota committed suicide while hospitalized for depression in 1993. But when a defector said Megumi had been spotted in 1994, Pyongyang changed the story and produced a 1994 death certificate.
Megumi's parents said they never believed North Korea's assertion—even when the North provided an urn with ashes in 2004. Japanese technicians determined that the ashes weren't Megumi's.
The Yokotas also didn't believe North Korea's claim that their daughter's husband was Kim Chol-jun, identified as an intelligence agent. He refused to provide Japanese investigators with DNA samples to prove paternity of Megumi's daughter.
In February, on a strong hunch from Sakie Yokota, the Japanese government checked DNA samples from the families of five South Korean abductees to see if they could be related to Megumi's daughter. On April 11, the government announced that Kim Young-nam, a South Korean who disappeared from a beach in 1978 when he was 16, was highly likely to be the father.
A senior North Korean official declared this month that the paternity allegation was "meaningless" and was designed "to bring South Korea into the abduction dispute."
Even more surprising than the paternity allegation has been the revelation that the North Korean responsible for the likely father's abduction received asylum in Seoul. South Korean authorities arrested Kim Gwang-hyun in 1980 when he was spying on the South. He was imprisoned but later released and allowed to live in South Korea. Media accounts say he either works at a bank or is employed by the South Korean military. He now lives in freedom while his victim remains trapped in totalitarian North Korea.
The Yokotas say they may travel in May to meet with their likely in-laws. First, though, Sakie Yokota is traveling to Washington to testify before a U.S. House of Representatives panel on April 27 on the North Korean abduction issue.
The sudden turn of events and the growing interest in the plight of the abductees around Japan are heartening to the Yokotas.
In the past, Shigeru Yokota said, "the Japanese government made the choice to avoid a war rather than seek justice. Now, the mood is changing."
Nursing a cup of black coffee, Takayoshi Mizuno, an activist for the abductees, said Japan's peacetime constitution bars any sort of military action to rescue the victims. But that hasn't stopped him from dreaming.
"We have a task force, actually, that has the capability to undertake this," he said.
A chronology of the bizarre case of how North Koreans kidnapped people from Japan and other countries.
Late 1970s and early 1980s—Japan says North Korean agents abducted 16 of its citizens from areas near the seashore. Private groups say the total is at least 23 people and perhaps many more.
1978—Four Lebanese women were taken to Pyongyang via Eastern Europe. Lebanon successfully negotiated for their safe return, welcoming them home in 1979.
July 1978—Three women reportedly were abducted from Macao, then a Portuguese colony, and taken to North Korea by a man who claimed to be Japanese.
Sept. 17, 2002—North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted the abductions of 13 Japanese nationals and apologized at a meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang. Five abductees returned to Japan for what was intended to be a brief visit. They never returned to North Korea.
July 9, 2004—One of the released abductees, Hitomi Soga, flew from Japan to Indonesia, where she was reunited with her husband, Charles Jenkins, an American GI who deserted to North Korea in 1964, and their two daughters. The family came to Japan on July 18, 2004.
Nov. 9-14, 2004—North Korea revised the date of Japanese abductee Megumi Yokota's alleged death from March 13, 1993, to April 1994 after a defector said she was seen earlier that year in Pyongyang.
Nov. 15, 2004—The Japanese delegation brought back to Japan what North Korea said were Yokota's remains.
Dec. 8, 2004—DNA tests in Japan revealed that the remains weren't Yokota's.
Feb. 14 -16, 2006—Tokyo obtained DNA material from the families of five South Korean abductees to see if they could be related to Yokota's daughter, Kim Hye-gyong.
April 11, 2006—The Japanese government announced that DNA tests show that South Korean abductee Kim Young-nam is highly likely to be the father of Kim Hye-gyong.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-ABDUCTION
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