Shigeru and Sakie Yokota have faced a ceaseless struggle since the day their daughter went missing.
It was the evening of November 15, 1977, when 13-year-old Megumi Yokota suddenly disappeared on her way home from her junior high school in the coastal area of Niigata city in northwestern Japan.
So began the Yokota family’s anguish and their desperate search for their daughter – said to have been the largest in the history of the Niigata prefecture’s police department. The police at first thought it was a kidnap-for-ransom.
It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later, in January 1997, that they learned the shocking news: North Korean agents had abducted Megumi. The Yokotas have since become the most famous crusaders for Japanese victims of North Korean abduction.
A UN Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights in North Korea, published on Monday, called the Yokotas “tireless campaigners for all abductees.” They meet many domestic and foreign officials and make speeches on an almost daily basis, traveling throughout Japan, and sometimes abroad to make public appeals – even though Shigeru Yokota is now 81 and Sakie Yokota is 78.
Sakie, whose anguish over her daughter’s disappearance drove her to convert to Christianity in the late-’70s – a rarity in Japan – testified before a UN special commission on the abduction issue at the Tokyo Public Hearing in August 2013:
“(When) I saw the photos for the first time (of Megumi as a) grownup…we wept so much. …We had looked for her everywhere for the previous 20 years, and now she is in Pyongyang, and we felt so bad. I finally discovered her, and still we cannot save her, and we said sorry…I wept so much that we still could not help her.”
The report explicitly stated that Kim Jong Il ordered the abductions of Japanese nationals.
Although Kim Jong Il in 2002 admitted North Korean agents abducted 13 Japanese nationals (seven women and six men), the report said the admission by Kim Jong Il “is clearly not the full truth.” It said the commission “finds that it is probable that at least 100 Japanese nationals have been abducted by the DPRK.”
It quoted a former official in Office 35 of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea as saying he “personally knew 10 Japanese women to have been abducted (one more than officially recognized by the Japanese government).”
‘The women remain under the supervision and surveillance of Office 35 whilst in the DPRK. They require permission to leave their house, visit their children or engage in any other activity’
The UN report also said that some of the female Japanese abductees taken by Office 35 “became pregnant by DPRK agents and were sent to live in a Milbong Chodeso, guarded houses in several locations. Once the children were born, they were taken to live with the agent’s parents. The mothers were then only permitted to visit their children on a weekend. The women remain under the supervision and surveillance of Office 35 whilst in the DPRK. They require permission to leave their house, visit their children or engage in any other activity.”
The Japanese government has confirmed that North Korea kidnapped 17 Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s; so far only five have returned and 12 are unaccounted for. Kim Jong Il 2002 admission was that North Korea had kidnapped 13 Japanese nationals, and Pyongyang claimed that eight, including Megumi Yokota, are dead, and that the other four never entered the country.
It is believed that the abducted Japanese nationals, including Megumi, were forced to teach the Japanese language and culture to North Korean intelligence agents for covert operations against South Korea. There is widespread belief that in October 2002 Kim Jong Il released only the five abductees who had not trained spies or taken part in terrorist operations against South Korea. The North provided no information on the rest nor released any others.
Shigeru and Sakie Yokota told NK News on Wednesday that their perpetual struggle to find Megumi will continue, even though North Korea claims she has already died.
Mr. and Mrs. Yokota, speaking from their home in Kawasaki city, adjoining Tokyo, urged Kim Jong Un to take the UN report seriously and settle the abduction issue caused by his father decades ago.
Then, they hope, they can reunite with the daughter they still believe is alive.
NK News: The abduction order by Kim Jong Il has been widely known in Japan since the mid-1990s.
Shigeru: A Korean ambassador told us that the South Korean government had informed the Japanese government of Megumi’s abduction in 1995, two years before we knew about it. It is said the Japanese government thought about negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea first, before settling the issue of the kidnapped Japanese people.
NK News: The recent UN report also said that a former official working with Office 35 personally knew 10 Japanese women who had been abducted.
Sakie: Oh, we did not know that. The Japanese government has confirmed that North Korea kidnapped 17 Japanese nationals, including nine women such as Megumi. On the other hand, North Korea has only admitted to taking 13 people, including seven women so far. So that means in reality more Japanese women were likely taken.
Shigeru: The report also said, in total, more than 100 Japanese people were likely taken.
Sakie: We have never really known the exact total of kidnapped Japanese nationals.
NK News: The UN report said, “Megumi appears to have married Mr. Kim Young Nam of the ROK, also abducted in his teens by the DPRK. Together they have one daughter. DNA tests have established the child to be that of Ms. Yokota Megumi and Mr. Kim Young Nam.” Is this true?
Sakie: Yes, it is true. The Japanese government has confirmed it with Megumi’s umbilical cord, taken when she was born. And the government also took his blood sample. So there is no doubt.
NK News: The UN report accused Kim Jong Un of responsibility for crimes against humanity. But as far as the abductions are concerned, they were conducted during Kim Jong Il’s rule. It seems his son Kim Jong Un had no responsibility for it. What do you think of him?
Sakie: When Kim Jong Un became leader in North Korea, we thought the situation would get better because we thought he knows freedom after living in Europe during his teens.
Shigeru: The North Korean government is based on the continuing political regime, so he perhaps cannot change it.
NK News: Kim Hyun Hee, one of two North Korean agents who bombed a Korean Air airliner in 1987, used to say that after the death of Kim Jong Il, the main culprit of the abduction issue, it would be easier to solve the problem. But this has not happened.
‘I think Kim Jong Un cannot come clean about the abduction issue by admitting his father’s wrongdoings. He cannot change the situation around him suddenly by himself’
Sakie: Everybody thought just like her at the time. People thought, “We can work it out.” But not so far. North Korea’s political system has to be considered.
Shigeru: I think Kim Jong Un cannot come clean about the abduction issue by admitting his father’s wrongdoings. He cannot change the situation around him suddenly by himself.
Sakie: He may be not at liberty to speak about this issue. Well, we really don’t know about the situation inside North Korea. So, the international community has to continue to put pressure on Pyongyang about human rights from the outside, just as the UN did this time.
This is a major opportunity now that the UN has issued the report. We need to say to Kim Jong Un, not just “You are doing wrong,” but “If you do things in a different way, the whole situation in North Korea will get better and you can get along with the international community,” etc. The world should say this to him.
Also, Kim Jong Un himself is a father. He needs to understand parental feeling.
NK News: So are you saying that, instead of accusing him of bearing responsibility, we should approach him in a proactive manner?
Sakie: Of course we hate him, because many people are suffering under his regime. But we have to think about what he is going to do from now on, or his future plans. Otherwise, North Koreans will remain unhappy.
NK News: Kim Hyun Hee has said that if Tokyo could find ways to persuade North Korea without hurting its pride, then a miracle could happen.
Sakie: That’s the same as in other nations. If you are pushed into a corner, you will only become enraged.
NK News: Do you want to meet Kim Eun Gyong, your granddaughter in Pyongyang? She is 26 now.
Sakie: Yes, but we don’t want to go to North Korea. Never. We should not go. We have to wait for the issue of Megumi to be solved.
Since we are getting older, we maybe cannot ever meet her…We do not know what to do. We don’t know when this issue will be solved. The best thing is to achieve those two goals in parallel.
NK News: I recently talked to Mr. Kenji Fujimoto, a former personal sushi chef for Kim Jong Il on the phone. He said Megumi may have been a Japanese language tutor for Kim Jong Un and (Kim Jong Il’s second son) Kim Jong Chol.
Sakie: We also have heard of that before.
NK News: Mr. Fujimoto said he thought that way because those two used to practice writing Chinese characters by using Japanese-brand practice books. He thought some Japanese people were teaching them Japanese. If this is true, your daughter may be very valuable to the Kim family.
Sakie: It is a dreamlike story…There was also a rumor that since Megumi looked like Kim Jong Il’s mother, he let Megumi take over the tutoring job. We don’t know if this is true or not.
NK News: What would you like to say to Kim Jong Un now?
‘…by accepting the report, the abduction issue could be solved and North Koreans can escape their current situation’
Shigeru: Newspapers have already reported that North Korea will not accept the UN report. But by accepting the report, the abduction issue could be solved and North Koreans can escape their current situation.
NK News: That is, if China does not oppose the report’s recommendations to the UN Security Council?
Sakie: Right. That’s the number one problem. That’s the point. China has veto power.
I have the same opinion as my husband. I think those degrading acts forcibly wrecking so many people’s lives should be considered inhuman.
I urged (Kim) to take the UN report seriously and admit fault. And by settling the abduction issue all at once, he can make both his country and the rest of the world happy.
Picture of Yokotas: Kosuke Takahashi
Picture of Megume Yokota: Courtesy of the Yokota family
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