In Megumi’s Footsteps

Why
Japan Obsesses over North Korean Kidnappings

It
has been more than 30 years since Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old junior
high school girl, was snatched by North Korean agents as she was
walking home from school in the west coast Japanese city of Niigata
and spirited away. Yet for many Japanese it might as well have
happened yesterday.

Although
most of the kidnappings occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s,
the Japanese are more obsessed with determining their true fate than
ever before. It complicates Japan's diplomacy and the six-party
talks, of which Japan is apart, aimed at ending North Korea's
nuclear weapons program.

The
abduction issue was very much in the news this week when Koichiro
Iizuka, son of Yaeko Taguchi, kidnapped in 1977, flew to Pusan, South
Korea, to meet with former North Korean agent Kim Hyon-hui. Now 47,
Kim was convicted of the terror bombing of a Korean Airlines
passenger jet in 1987, which killed 115 people.

Kim
was apprehended along with a co-conspirator sent to South Korea,
convicted and sentenced to death, only to receive a pardon on the
grounds that she had been, in effect, brain-washed into committing
the act. Her connection to the kidnapping issue comes from her claim
that the abductee Taguchi taught her Japanese in Pyongyang.

The
Japanese believe that its citizens were snatched from Japan against
their will in order to provide training in Japanese language and
customs for secret agents. Pyongyang denies that Taguchi was Kim's
teacher, who taught under the name Lee Un-hae.

It
should be noted that there is no dispute that these kidnappings
occurred. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il admitted the
abductions and apologized to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi,
when Koizumi visited Pyongyang in 2002, saying 12 people were
kidnapped. Of these, five were returned to Japan; the other eight
died. Case closed.

Japan
says it has identified 17 of its citizens as being confirmed kidnap
victims. Five were returned leaving, 12 unaccounted for. All of them
may still be living, Tokyo maintains, including Megumi and Ms.
Taguchi (some would be in advanced age; Yutaka Kume, the first
abduction victim, was 52 in 1977).

In
2004 North Korea handed over what it said were the cremated remains
of Megumi Yokota, whom Pyongyang asserts committed suicide in 1994 at
around the age of 30, but Tokyo says that the North literally cooked
the evidence.

The
remains, Japan alleges, were cremated at an unusually high
temperature in the mistaken belief that it would make DNA
identification difficult or impossible. Japanese technicians,
however, did manage to make the DNA matchups and say the remains
belonged to other people, not Megumi. The North stands by its claim.

To
understand how the kidnappings, especially that of Megumi Yokota, are
so important to Japanese, it helps to walk in her footsteps on that
fateful night November 15, 1977. To do so, I joined Niigata Police
Superintendent Shouzaburou Tamura at Yorii Junior High School who
explained how Megumi had stayed after school hours with her badminton
club. Around 6:30 p.m. she and a couple of her school chums left for
home.
{mospagebreak}

Tamura
and I walked along the road up the hill past another school yard,
houses and apartments. He showed me where Megumi's friends
peeled off one by one and how she continued walking up the hill alone
until she came to a T intersection, where she would have turned left
toward her home, almost in sight 100 meters or so away.

It
was here, Tamura believes, that she was kidnapped. It is surmised
that North Korean agents were returning from an unsuccessful mission
(the Sea of Japan coastline is only about 300 meters further along
the road). They spotted Megumi walking alone and fearing they had
been recognized or worried about returning empty-handed, they
snatched her. She tragically was in the wrong place at the wrong
time.

One
can't help but be struck by the sheer ordinariness of the
circumstances. Megumi was just a typical Japanese schoolgirl, doing
typical Japanese school girl activities with her friends living in a
typical Japanese neighborhood .No wonder her plight tugs at the
country's heart.

Initially,
the police pursued the usual suspicions – that she had run
away, was kidnapped for ransom or sex, but soon all of the leads
(such as they were) turned cold. It was as if she had “disappeared
in a puff of smoke,” says her mother Sakie. It would be 20
years before the Yokotas suspected her true fate through information
obtained by the debriefing North Korean defectors.

It
is no exaggeration to say that resolution of the kidnappings has
become the most important foreign policy issue for Japan and the main
obstacle to normalization of relations with North Korea. The number
of organizations pushing their cause is proliferating wildly.

The
families of the abductees have become celebrities. The Yokotas appear
on television, at press conferences and are interviewed for their
opinions on politics, nuclear weapons and North Korea (the latter not
complimentary). Many politicians, including Prime Minister Taro Aso
himself, wear the little blue ribbon in their lapel to show
solidarity, much as Americans used to wear bracelets with POW names.

But
it is a tricky issue for the US, as former president George W. Bush
discovered. Bush met in 2008 with the Yokotas at the White House,
which the Japanese applauded. Then, as part of the nuclear
negotiations, he took North Korea off the list of terror states,
which infuriated many Japanese.

Secretary
of state Hillary Clinton treaded cautiously when she visited Japan in
late February on her first Asian tour. She met for 30 minutes with
the Yokotas and other abductee families, listened sympathetically to
their stories but made no commitments.

Washington
would probably be happy to see the matter disappear. It is a
distraction from the main task of disarming North Korea of its
nuclear weapons in the six–party talks that may soon get
underway with Washington's new negotiator Stephen Bosworth.

However,
it may be that the abduction issue is not as tangential to the main
subject of the negotiations as one might think. As they say in
television court room dramas, it goes to credibility. After all,
establishing a protocol to verify the status of the North's
weapons is the nub of the exercise.

If
the North Koreans can cook the evidence of the cremated remains of
Megumi Yokota, as Tokyo alleges, what else are they cooking up?

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