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Family of Abductee Seeks Answers

Asia: Parents of Megumi Yokota, kidnapped at 13 by North Korean agents, are among Japanese seeking verification of a relative's fate.

September 27, 2002|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Sakie Yokota had already warned her daughter about the dark and lonely stretch of road that wound past an abandoned hotel near their home in northwest Japan.

Thirteen-year-old Megumi had been late the night before. And when she didn't get home from badminton practice by 6:30, her mother and 9-year-old twin brothers grabbed flashlights to search the neighborhood and nearby beach. They ran back to her school to see if she was still there. Her father dropped his mah-jongg game and enlisted his friends to help look for the girl.

That was on Nov. 15, 1977.

It was the beginning of a search over the next several years that would include 3,000 police officers, divers, boats and helicopters. But the last trace of Megumi was found the night she disappeared. Less than a block from her home, search dogs following her scent went round in circles and stopped.

The quarter-century since then has been a "living purgatory" of despair and frustration for Megumi's parents. Last week they received confirmation of their suspicion: North Korea admitted kidnapping her and 11 other Japanese.

Today the Yokotas and the families of the other victims will get a chance to vent their anger at a meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. The couple said in an interview at the suburban Tokyo apartment where they now live that they want a comprehensive investigation of what happened to their daughter.

Japan has been riveted by the Yokota family's tale, particularly since last week, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acknowledged in a meeting with Koizumi that North Koreans had abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, including Megumi. The North Koreans said she died a decade ago, reportedly leaving behind a daughter who is now 15.

Kim said the abductees were used to train spies in the Japanese language who could then adopt their identities, so the North Koreans could more easily slip into enemy South Korea.

Victims' families have blasted the Japanese government for failing to verify the information that North Korea provided. Japanese officials accompanying Koizumi took no pictures of the four people still living who North Korea says were among those kidnapped, nor were physical characteristics of the victims solicited from their families in Japan. Until the revelations last week, the Yokotas hadn't ever heard directly from Japan's Foreign Ministry about their daughter's disappearance.

The government is now trying to get more details. A team of diplomats will fly to Pyongyang on Saturday to press North Korea for information and evidence.

For the families of those who are reported to be dead, the revelations did not provide closure. They doubt that any of the information is true.

"Judging life and death with such flimsy evidence is just outrageous," says Megumi's father, Shigeru Yokota.

The Yokotas have been told they might be able to visit North Korea soon, but are divided about whether to go. Shigeru is keen to go as soon as possible, but Megumi's mother, Sakie, wants to wait until she knows more about what happened to Megumi and whether the 15-year-old girl is really their granddaughter.

The girl met with a Japanese diplomat in Pyongyang and told him that she still had her mother's Yonex-brand badminton racket. The racket has a gold shaft, and its cover still had on it part of Megumi's name. But the teenager didn't know that her mother was Japanese. She also did not know her mother's birthday, or where she was buried.

Megumi reportedly had married a North Korean man, who has since remarried and has a 3-year-old son.

Before the Kim-Koizumi summit last week, the only clue that Megumi might be in North Korea had emerged five years ago, 20 years after her disappearance.

Her parents learned from the office of a parliament member that a North Korean agent who defected to South Korea might have information about their daughter. They traveled to Seoul to meet him.

The defector told them that his instructor at a North Korean military institute had abducted someone matching Megumi's description in the 1970s. According to the defector, three agents were involved. Two were walking along the beach when the girl came by, and they abducted her in order to ensure they weren't discovered. They didn't realize she was a child until they got her on the boat, where they put her in a dark cargo hold for the 40-hour journey to North Korea. She cried the entire way for her mother, and scratched the walls so hard that her fingers bled and her fingernails cracked.

According to the agent, the instructor was criticized by his superiors in North Korea for abducting a child. Megumi was told that if she learned Korean, she would be given a job and allowed to go back home. But she fell ill, was hospitalized twice and never was sent back.

Sakie Yokota wrote a book in 1998 about the family's ordeal, which has sold more than 20,000 copies.

She recalls, "I wanted to die. It was like being killed slowly."

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