Monday, December 04, 2006



Without a Trace
Megumi Yokota was 13 when the North Koreans kidnapped her in 1977. She hasn't been heard from since.

Sunday, December 3, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

Scene: A lonely residential street in the city of Niigata, along the western coast of Japan.

Time: Late afternoon in the autumn of 1977.

Action: A 13-year-old girl is walking home from school, having stayed late for badminton practice. She waves goodbye to friends, turns the corner, and is never seen again.

This is the true story of "Abduction," a documentary that opened in Japan last weekend after winning accolades at several international film festivals. The lost girl is Megumi Yokota. In 2002, North Korea admitted that it had kidnapped Megumi, along with 12 other Japanese citizens, enslaving them for the purpose of training its spies to pass as Japanese. "Megumi-chan," or "Little Megumi," is now a household name in Japan. President Bush met with Megumi's mother and brother in the White House last April, calling it "one of the most moving meetings since I've been the President."

In the wake of North Korea's recent nuclear test and missile launches, it's easy to neglect the other central fact of Kim Jong Il's regime: its abuse of human rights. This is the preferred approach of Beijing, whose stated policy is to track down and repatriate the tens of thousands of desperate North Koreans who have crossed the border into northeast China. It refuses to let the United Nations help the refugees and sends them back to face prison camps or worse.

More grotesquely, it is also the attitude of South Korea, which closes its eyes to the North's depredations. It permits what amounts to slave labor in the Kaesong joint economic zone over the border in the North. Moreover, President Roh Moo-hyun's "sunshine policy" has shed no light on the fate of several hundred South Koreans who were kidnapped by the North or the hundreds of Korean War soldiers from the South whom Pyongyang has been holding as POWs for more than 50 years.

As "Abduction" explains, it took years before Megumi's parents suspected what had happened to their daughter, and even now, the full story remains unknown. In the film, Ahn Myong-Jin, a former North Korean spy who defected to the South in 1993, describes what his instructor at the spy school--a Mr. Chung--told him about Megumi's kidnapping. The girl was hidden inside a steel compartment in the hold of a freighter during the 200-mile journey to North Korea, he says, scratching at the door so hard in an effort to escape that her nails came off. Mr. Chung felt "terrible," he says, when he discovered he had grabbed a child. Mr. Ahn remembers seeing the grown-up Megumi once, a beautiful young woman with "pure eyes."
Akitaka Saiki, who led Japan's negotiations with Pyongyang on the abduction issue and is now deputy chief of mission at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, says the "Japanese government has identified that at least 17 Japanese citizens have been abducted in 12 separate cases." Are there others? "There are still others who disappeared suddenly without good reason--suddenly from the beach, suddenly from a train station. We've identified 17 people with 100% certainty. There may be more." No. 17--a 29-year-old woman kidnapped in 1977 on her way to a knitting class--was added to the list only two weeks ago.

Pyongyang has permitted just five abductees to return to Japan, and Mr. Saiki expresses skepticism about its explanations for what happened to the rest. One supposedly died in a traffic accident, but "how could a traffic accident have occurred in a country that has so few automobiles?" he asks. Another was said to have had a heart attack, "but that's hard to accept about a woman in her 20s."

And what of Megumi? In Pyongyang, in November 2004, North Korea announced that she had killed herself in 1994, handing over her "remains" to Mr. Saiki. Subsequent DNA analysis showed that they were not Megumi's. Mr. Ahn, the former North Korean spy, says he has heard that she was teaching Japanese to Kim Jong Il's son. Is she still alive? "That's what we believe," says Mr. Saiki.
Japan always raises the kidnapping of its citizens in the six-party talks, Mr. Saiki says. "The main topic is nuclear, but for us, we always remind North Korea and the other participants in the talks of the abduction issue. . . . Russia, China and South Korea, even, are not very eager to have human rights discussed in a multilateral setting," he says, but they go along. "The U.S. government always supports us."

Meanwhile, as they wait for her return, Megumi's parents, and the relatives of other Japanese whose sons or daughters, brothers or sisters were kidnapped by North Korea, wear blue ribbons in their honor. The blue symbolizes the sea that divides the families from their loved ones and the sky that unites them.

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.


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