Wednesday, June 18, 2008



'Evil' describes kidnappers of Japanese

Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story. 10-11:30 p.m. Thursday. WPBT-PBS 2.

Imposing moral judgments on nations is widely dismissed among the chattering classes as jingoist, simplistic and just plain dumb. Remember the contempt heaped on Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an ''evil empire?'' And when George W. Bush referred to North Korea as part of an ''axis of evil'' a few years ago, diplomats and academics grew downright faint. Evil is ''too heavy and radioactive a word,'' complained an official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in a typical criticism.

Let him make that argument to Sakie Yokota, whose 13-year-old daughter was kidnapped by North Korean spies while walking home from school in Niigata, Japan, 31 years ago and still hasn't returned. Says Yokota, whose ability to discern right from wrong is unencumbered by the sophisticated sensibilities of diplomacy: ``North Korea is an evil place.''


It is almost inconceivable that anyone who watches Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story, a documentary airing Thursday as part of the PBS series Independent Lens, will disagree. Megumi is one of 13 ordinary citizens known to have been kidnapped by the North Korean security service to help teach the country's spies how to pass for Japanese. And the key word is known. As Abduction reports, the real number may be in the hundreds -- and that doesn't include the possibility that North Korean agents may have abducted dozens of other Asians they might be able to convincingly imitate.

The consequences have been terrible not only for the victims (of the 13 Japanese North Korea has admitted to kidnapping, eight have never been seen again), but for countless others who have died in North Korean terrorist attacks. A North Korean spy pretending to be Japanese smuggled a bomb on a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people in 1987; after her capture, she confessed she learned Japanese language and customs from a kidnap victim held in a Pyongyan compound.

Filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim worked six years on Abduction, and their time was well spent. They've accumulated a wealth of footage -- both archival and their own -- that allows them to tell the story virtually without narration. It also hammers home just how long the Yokotas' search for Megumi has dragged on. In televised pleas for the return of her daughter in the first days after the kidnapping, Mrs. Yokota's hair is dark, her skin smooth. In interviews filmed last year, she's gray and wrinkled, the toll of not only time but of heartbreak.

Some of the latter has come at the hands of Japan's own government, which has always seemed more interested in diplomatic rapprochement with North Korea than the fate of its kidnapped citizens. Megumi's disappearance was first assumed to have been the work of a common criminal, if a psychopath who preys on children can be reasonably termed common. But within two years, some Japanese journalists and security officials had tentatively linked a string of unsolved abductions to North Korea.


It was the capture of the terrorist airline-bomber in 1987 and her subsequent confession that confirmed the North Koreans were snatching Japanese and forcing them to work in spy schools. But it took the Japanese government another 10 years to admit all it knew, and another five after that to demand an accounting from Pyongyang. Government indifference for their dilemma eventually reduced the Yokotas and families of other hostages to standing outside the offices of the ruling LDP party and screaming obscenities through bullhorns.

Abduction's scenes of the families are simply crushing. One mother lapses into a torpor of grief, unable to speak except to mumble ''My son, my son.'' Mrs. Yokota converts to Christianity and finds solace in the Biblical tribulations of Job: ''The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away.'' But her husband Shigeru is scornful. ''If there's a God,'' he argues bitterly, ''then he'd give Megumi back to us.'' He, too, sounds like a man who understands the definition of evil.


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