The strange story of the stolen schoolgirl

The lives of Shigeru and Sakie Yokota were shattered in 1977 when their daughter Megumi disappeared. Three decades later, as the truth about her fate emerges, she has become the symbol of distrust between two old enemies.
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The Independent Online

Shigeru and Sakie Yokota keep two framed photographs of their daughter Megumi in the living room of their small apartment in Kawasaki, Japan. In the first, which has become one of the most iconic images in Japan, the 12-year-old Megumi strikes a camera-shy pose in school uniform, a young girl teetering on the edge of adulthood.

Next to it is a composite photo of the smiling 30-something woman she might have become. "She's 39 now," her father says. "I can hardly believe it."

The Yokotas have no way of knowing if the composite is accurate. Weeks after the first snap was taken, their daughter disappeared, just before her 13th birthday in November 1977, while walking home from school along the Sea of Japan coast.

For more than two decades, her parents feared Megumi had been the victim of a sex attacker or murderer, but never lost hope she would turn up alive. "I've always tried to believe the best, despite everything," her mother says. "That's how I've got through this. We believe she's alive, somewhere."

Their hopes were rewarded in the late 1990s when a Japanese magazine carried an interview with An Myong Jin, a former North Korean spy, who said Megumi had been snatched by his colleagues, stuffed in a sack and spirited to Pyongyang, where she still lived.

"We didn't know what to believe," Mr Yokota says. "But the article had a ring of truth because it mentioned in detail the badminton racquet she carried the day she disappeared."

Astonishingly, the defector's claims that Megumi's kidnapping had been part of a plot to recruit language teachers and spies was true.

The Yokotas took a call in 2002 from a Japanese Foreign Office official who said Pyongyang had admitted kidnapping their daughter. There had been a breakthrough, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was to meet Kim Jong Il. Megumi's abduction was among the items to be discussed. "Our hearts leapt," Megumi's mother says. "You can't imagine how we felt after all those years."

But instead of the family's ordeal coming to an end, life took another bitter twist. As Koizumi and Kim eyed each other warily across a conference table during their historic Pyongyang summit on 17 September, 2002, the Yokotas were called to the Foreign Office bunker in Tokyo.

An official was waiting with a fax just in from North Korea. "We knew when we saw his face it was bad news," Mr Yokota says. "He said, 'I'm sorry to tell you your daughter is dead', then he started crying."

When the dust from the summit settled, the Yokotas learned that Megumi had married in North Korea and given birth to a daughter, Kim Hye Gyong, now 16, whom they have never met. Pyongyang claimed Megumi committed suicide in 1993 in a mental hospital, while suffering depression, but the Yokotas refuse to believe this and cling to the hope that their daughter is alive.

"There is no clear evidence for the suicide," Mr Yokota says. "Pyongyang's explanations didn't make sense, so we put together a list of questions we wanted answered. But we never heard back."

North Korea's unconvincing explanations for the deaths of Megumi and seven other abducted Japanese, and their claim that these deaths could not be verified because most of their graves had been washed away in floods, created a political storm back home, putting the first nails in the coffin of the early détente.

When five surviving abductees, allowed home without their families in October 2002, decided not to go back to Pyongyang, the coffin lid was firmly hammered on.

The abductees want their families to be allowed to join them in Japan. Pyongyang demands the five return to North Korea first, and Tokyo says negotiations are stalled until the issue is resolved. The abduction issue blocks normal relations with Pyongyang and was a stumbling block in last week's failed six-party talks.

Suggestions that the North snatched, and possibly murdered, as many as 150 Japanese citizens at the height of the Cold War, are widely circulated in a public discussion tinged with hysteria.

It is now difficult to remember the hopes raised by Mr Koizumi's decision to visit Pyongyang, which at the time was compared to President Richard Nixon's landmark 1972 trip to Red China.

Bilateral relations have returned to deep freeze, old hatreds on both sides have resurfaced and the Japanese Foreign Office mandarins who put the summit together have been shunned and attacked at home as "traitors".

North Korea has stepped up its nuclear weapons programme, Japan has promised to respond in kind, and at the centre of the whole mess are this former bank worker, his wife and their daughter.

Plucked at random from millions of other people in a hateful fluke of Cold War politics, these unassuming parents have become the face of the abductee issue. When Shigeru Yokota weeps for his daughter on national television and pleads that Pyongyang reveal what happened to her, Japan listens.

The past 18 months waiting for confirmation that their daughter is alive or dead have been unbearable, Mr Yokota says. "We keep hearing rumours. In July, we heard the remaining family members would be coming home, then again in September and on the first anniversary of the returnees' homecoming.

"We've also been told everybody has been killed. The hardest thing has been watching the parents of the abductees die before they meet or learn what happened to them."

Of their daughter and granddaughter, who speaks only Korean and who may not even know her mother is Japanese, there is nothing more official from Pyongyang.

The nightmare 18 months has taken its toll on the Yokotas, who look worn from the endless campaigning, television appearances and speeches, and on their politics, which have hardened distinctly over the past 12 months, mirroring the steady move to the right of Japanese public opinion.

Once supporters of negotiations without conditions with Pyongyang, the couple now says Japan must get tougher and stop relying on the United States and China to mend relations with its troublesome neighbour.

"The government needs to tell the Koreans to return our loved ones and tell us clearly what has happened or we will introduce economic sanctions and stop food aid," Mr Yokota says.

He also has little time for those who say Japan is to blame for the crisis because it broke its agreement with Pyongyang to send the abductees back. "Nobody knows who made this agreement or what sort of agreement it was," he says.

"Nothing was written, or signed. And it wasn't the Japanese government that decided the abductees would not return to North Korea, it was their families in Japan. The government decided that rather than go against them it would support them."

Given the public stature of the Yokotas and their symbolic importance in Japan, it is not surprising that they have been courted by political opportunists with less interest in their plight than in picking a fight with Pyongyang.

Their campaigning has increasingly mixed them with some of Japan's most hawkish politicians and the abduction issue has become, one commentator says, "a right-wing political football".

It is hard to avoid the impression of an essentially decent couple buffeted by political forces outside their control, but the Yokotas deny they are being used. "Some of these people have been helping us for years, long before anyone else believed in us," Mr Yokota says.

"We campaign with lots of different groups but we've tried to remain non-political. Just because some of these people and groups are right wing doesn't mean we're at one with them." His wife agrees: "We just want our daughter back from that terrible country. Or at least an explanation of what happened."

The 26-year wait for Megumi seems to have been hardest on her mother, a shy person who has forced herself to speak in public all across the country. While her husband has remained an atheist, she has, unusually in Japan, become a Christian to help her cope. Still, she admits to feeling despair.

"There have been times when I just want to give up," she says. "I'm angry and I feel hate sometimes, but we have to look forward and try to solve this."

All the Yokotas have to cling to is a poignant letter from Hitomi Soga, an abductee who left her American husband and two daughters behind in North Korea last year and has become frustrated at the lack of progress to resolve the issue.

Soga said she used to go shopping with Megumi Yokota in North Korea and had helped celebrate her 15th birthday. She said a North Korean nanny Megumi: "It's a shame your mother is not here with you" , seemingly unaware Megumi had been kidnapped.

Other returnees have kept silent about the quarter of a century they spent in the world's most secretive state. "We don't talk about their lives there," Mr Yokota says. "They're afraid of what will happen to their families in North Korea if they do. They haven't even talked about what went on with their own relatives in Japan."

Soga had been snatched as a 19-year-old in Niigata prefecture while walking home from a shopping trip with her mother in August, 1978. In North Korea, she married Charles Robert Jenkins, an alleged US Army deserter, who still lives in Pyongyang with their two daughters.

Chimura Yasushi and Hamamoto Fukie were kidnapped, both aged 23, while on a date in Fukui on the Sea of Japan coast in July, 1978. They married in North Korea and had a daughter and two sons, who have been told by Pyongyang that their parents are being detained in Japan.

Hasuike Kaoru and Okuda Yukiko were kidnapped while on a date, in July, 1978, and also left behind a teenage daughter and a 20-year-old son when they returned to Japan.

And somewhere in the grim, closed society of North Korea is Kim Hye Gyong, Megumi's 16-year-old daughter. Yokota Shigeru and Sakie, wait and dream of the day that Gyong steps through their door. That day may never come but this worn couple will fight on.