In September of 2002, newly-elected Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi flew to Pyongyang for a historic summit with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, father of current head of state, Kim Jong Un.

The stakes were high. On the table were the possibilities of bilateral diplomatic relations and related financial aid – massive financial aid – for cash-strapped Pyongyang.

With Koizumi was a political up-and-comer named Shinzo Abe. Abe,  today Japan’s prime minister, had been studying the abduction issue and knew that the summit presented an opportunity to recover 17 people that Tokyo suspected had been taken to North Korea.

Kim wanted money, and the Japanese were well aware of this. When the North Korean delegation began stalling, the Japanese withdrew to a side room. In full knowledge that the room was bugged, Abe and the Japanese team said that if the North Koreans were not serious about returning the abducted Japanese, then there was no point in staying and they should return home.

The ruse worked. Returning to the table, the Japanese side was stunned when Kim admitted to abducting the 17 people, and promised to return them to Japan.

Five abductees returned

One month later, five Japanese abductees stepped onto the tarmac at Haneda Airport. It was the first time they had seen their homeland in 25 years.

The Yokotas watched with a mixture of joy and pain. Shigeru waited on the tarmac, camera ready, hoping against hope that Megumi — who the Japanese government had told them would not be among the five — would nevertheless emerge from the plane with the others.

She did not.

As he watched the released abductees filing out of the airplane, red Kim Il-sung badges pinned to their lapels, Takuya was roiled by conflicting thoughts. “What a bitter thing has been forced upon them,” he recalled thinking, “I wonder if any of them knows anything about Megumi?”

With some skilful maneuvering, the Japanese side managed to separate the freed captives from their North Korean minders long enough to ask them if they really wanted to return to North Korea as Kim suggested. All five all chose to stay in Japan.

Of the remaining 12, North Korea claims that most had died. However, Kim Hyon-hui was able to refute North Korea’s claims for some of these abductees, and Hitomi Soga — an abductee who was forced to marry US Army deserter Charles Jenkins while they were both in North Korea — also refutes the claims that North Korea did not also abduct her mother, Miyoshi.

It took months to de-brief the five former captives, who had been gorged on a daily diet of propaganda as well as the sparse rations available in the famine-stricken North. But as the captives were re-assimilated into Japanese society and the scope of the North’s program was understood, the elation of homecoming gave way to disbelief and shock.

News of the abductees spread around the world. Other countries began to reopen cold cases, too. Eventually, it was confirmed that people from France, Lebanon, Malaysia, Romania and elsewhere had been renditioned to North Korea. Kim’s intelligence had been running a global kidnapping network for decades, but nobody had joined the dots.

America takes an interest

Even an American – student David Sneddon, who disappeared in China’s Yunnan Province in 2004 – may have been snatched by the North, though the official US State Department position continues to be that it cannot confirm that he was abducted.

During a US trip, Takuya Yokota (right) speaks to James Sneddon, brother of David Sneddon, an American believed to have been kidnapped by North Korea while hiking in China in 2004. Photo: Takuya Yokota
During a US trip, Takuya Yokota, right, speaks to James Sneddon, brother of David Sneddon, an American believed to have been kidnapped by North Korea while hiking in China in 2004. Photo: Takuya Yokota

But the long US indifference to North Korea’s abductions ended in 2016, when Otto Warmbier, an American college student, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster while vacationing in Pyongyang.

In June 2017, Warmbier was flown back to the United States in a coma, but died just days after he arrived home. The exact cause of his death and the reason for his condition is, to this day, unknown.

President Donald Trump, who had made North Korea a centerpiece of his young presidency, took notice. In November 2017, Trump and First Lady Melania traveled to Japan, where they met with Prime Minister Abe and the families of some of the Japanese citizens still missing in the mysterious North.

Six months later, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore for the first-ever US-North Korean summit. Many, including the Yokotas – who have met with George W Bush, Barack Obama, plus leaders of the European Union and the United Nations in their ongoing effort to bring Megumi home — were hopeful, but realistic.

“We think this is really the final opportunity for us,” Takuya said when he visited the United Nations in May to testify on human rights abuses in North Korea.

Megumi: Dead or alive?

And yet, as spy and terrorist Kim Hyon-hui has pointed out, Megumi may be too valuable for the North to release. Tatuya said: “It may be that the North Koreans believe that if they release my sister, then the world will learn of a network of North Korean spies circling the globe.”

As tutor to the second member of the dynasty, Megumi would also have detailed knowledge about the North’s inner circle. In 2004, perhaps in a bid to end the Yokotas’ insistence that their daughter be returned, Pyongyang presented Tokyo with a death certificate and an urn of ashes and bones.

Megumi, suffering from depression, had committed suicide, the North alleged.

But the death certificate was a forgery, and DNA testing performed on the remains proved inconclusive. The North Koreans, well aware of the Japanese public’s interest in Megumi’s fate, have skilfully manipulated information available about her.

The Yokotas have spent the past 20 years trying to achieve an impossible balance between the exigencies of geopolitics, on the one hand, and their desire to get their sister and daughter home.

The abduction issue continues to be an obstacle to better ties between Pyongyang and Tokyo. A solution would require a full and transparent accounting from Pyongyang, which seems highly unlikely. And Japanese public opinion will not allow Tokyo to forge ahead and upgrade relations unless the matter is addressed.

Living in hope

Last month, Takuya Yokota was among those seated in a darkened Reitaku auditorium as the movie about his kidnapped sister played on the large screen above him.

For the full 30 minutes, he sat motionless, eyes fixed on the floor. When he took the podium after the film had finished, his voice wavered. He said that he had never been able to watch the whole thing from beginning to end. It was still too painful.

His father, Shigeru, now 86, is in hospital, dying. His mother, Sakie continues to travel Japan and the world pleading for help to bring Megumi back. Both parents want to go on living so they can see Megumi one more time. But they know that there are bigger forces and prerogatives at work than their own.

“We must get everyone in the world to see that it’s not just the Japanese abductees who are made to suffer by the Kim family,” Takuya said. “All 25 million North Korean citizens are tormented by the Kims, too.”

It remains to be seen which will win out: diplomatic intractability, marked by continual dissembling by the regime in Pyongyang and continual ineffectiveness by the government in Tokyo; or a possible homecoming by a little girl who vanished on a dark November night four decades ago.

Megumi Yokota in a photo taken in North Korea. The photo was released to Japan during negotiations between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the abductees, following the Kim-Koizumi summit. Photo: Public domain
Megumi Yokota in a photo taken in North Korea. The photo was released to Japan during negotiations between Pyongyang and Tokyo over the abductees, following the Kim-Koizumi summit. Photo: Public domain

Also read Part 1: Megumi: The girl who never came home