October 13, 2000
If Megumi Yokota is still alive, she's 36 years old. On the night of November 15, 1977, Megumi, then 13 years old, said goodbye to her friends after badminton practice at her local school gym in Niigata, a city facing the Japan sea. They never saw her again.
Her way home lay for the most part through residential streets, but part of it ran along the seashore. When Megumi didn't turn up for dinner, her father called the police. "She always came straight home so we immediately called the police when she didn't come back when she was supposed to," her father, Shigeru, would tell reporters countless times over the following 23 years.
The search started with the police calling all known friends, relatives and acquaintances, but no trace was discovered. The next several days were spent with hundreds of police and local volunteers going over every route that she might have taken home and looking under every bush and through the extensive woodlands that surround Niigata. The search widened to surrounding prefectures, but after several weeks had passed, not a single clue was found.
It's difficult to pinpoint how or where the rumor sprang up, but as the weeks began to wear on, the Yokotas became convinced that Megumi had been kidnapped by North Korean agents. The beaches of Niigata lie about 580 miles (950 kilometers) from North Korea, across the Japan Sea, but unexplained disappearances and strange sightings occurred time and time again during the period from about 1970 through 1985.
During this 15-year period, up and down the coast of Japan's main island of Honshu where it faces North Korea across the Japan Sea, strange boats were reported at night, lights were seen on the sea, and couples who went down to the beach for privacy saw frogmen emerge from the surf, reconnoiter briefly and then return to the ocean. Indeed, one of the strangest disappearances was of a newlywed couple, both about 20, who abruptly vanished one night near the seashore without a trace.
Although exact numbers do not exist, it is thought that during this 15-year period, somewhere in the range of 40 to 60 unexplained disappearances took place within a short distance of the Japan Sea. This is perhaps not a large number. In Japan, as elsewhere, every year thousands of people go missing without a reason. Yet these disappearances were particularly baffling, and often associated with sightings of unidentified ships or rumors of frogmen.
Information also began to filter back to the National Police Agency about Japanese supposedly held in North Korea. North Korean agents who were captured in Japan or South Korea spoke of being trained by Japanese. The descriptions of their Japanese instructors did not fit the descriptions of the few known Japanese Red Army members in North Korea.
For one thing, there were no known Red Army female members in North Korea. The "instructors" were often females. North Korean female agents were also assigned Japanese female roommates so they could observe them and become as "Japanese" as possible. North Korean female agents often tried to pass themselves off as being Japanese when on overseas missions. Also, the agents spoke of these "instructors" as being prisoners.
Gradually, the Japanese realized that there was a strong possibility that North Korean commandos, as a "graduation exercise," were being assigned missions of kidnapping Japanese from the beaches of Japan as training for sabotage missions in the event of war. This news slowly leaked out to the Japanese public at large, and families like the Yokotas, who had a loved one disappear under mysterious circumstances, formed groups to seek the return of their lost children and family members.
There was a good reason for this: the Japanese government has been trying to sweep the whole subject of "kidnapped" Japanese under the rug, both because there is no concrete proof, and for fear of antagonizing the North Koreans. The Japanese government is unmistakably pusillanimous.
Probably what brought the kidnapping missions, if there were such, to a halt was the widespread publicity they began to receive. It certainly wasn't any type of action on the part of the Japanese government. Until just a year or two ago, the Japanese Naval Self Defense Forces never intercepted a spy ship, and they have done almost nothing to defend Japan's long and exposed coastline that faces Korea. Indeed, the impression is very strong in many circles that the Japanese government has gone out of its way to avoid any type of confrontation with the North Koreans at all. The Japanese government seems to have done little to defend Japan, except to try to appease North Korea.
When Japanese patrol boats did accidentally stumble across two Korean spy boats so deep inside Japanese waters two years ago that they could literally be hit with a stone thrown from the shore, the government was paralyzed. Confusion reigned in Tokyo, and it was almost four hours after the intrusion was discovered and the two spy boats chased out of Japanese waters that the cabinet was finally able to meet. Even then, it could not make up its mind whether to fire on the boats or not, and the debate raged all day. Not that it mattered. The ammunition lockers on the Japanese patrol boats were padlocked shut, and the keys were lost. Finally a crewman broke the padlock off with an axe, and the Japanese patrol boats were able to fire across the bows of the Korean boats, which just revved up further and disappeared in rooster-tail waves to North Korea.
No matter how often they demonstrate, or stand in front of the foreign ministry with portraits of their missing children, the victims are ignored. Japan has just announced, once again, that it will be giving free food aid to North Korea, this time 500,000 tons of rice. It has given close to a million tons of rice to North Korea since 1995 (including the newest donations), with the donations interrupted for a period after the North Korean sent a rocket sailing over Japan. The foreign minister, when asked about kidnap victims, replied, "We have to keep giving the North Koreans food to keep them talking." The foreign ministry has also asked the U.S. government to take up the subject of both the Yodo hijacking (a JAL plane skyjacked to North Korea in 1970) and the abducted Japanese.
Neither of these are concerns of the United States, and it is unreasonable to expect that the USA will pursue these issues aggressively, other than in the broad context of other negotiations. This is the responsibility of the government of Japan, not the government of the United States of America.
Around the turn of the century, when China was being pulled apart by foreign powers, Sun Yat Sen, who eventually overthrew the Ching Dynasty in 1911 and founded China's first modern government, said there were three principles by which you could judge if a country was really being effectively governed. The "People's Three Principles" are that a government must (1) protect the people's sovereignty, (2) protect the people's livelihood, and (3) protect the people's democracy.
If a government cannot do these three things, in Sun's opinion, it is not a real government anymore and needs to be replaced. The Japanese government seems to be unwilling to take any steps to protect its own people. Although the proof is largely circumstantial, there is a very strong suspicion, close to certainty, that Japanese have been kidnapped from beaches up and down the coast of Japan and held against their will in North Korea. Megumi Yokota, if she is still alive, is probably somewhere in North Korea.
What type of government is it that has abandoned Megumi Yokota?
Of separations and kidnappings
March 2, 2001
Last week, due to a very grave illness in his family, your reporter went back to America for a short visit. This was his first time in the USA in almost eight years.
It was not Rip Van Winkle-san goes to the States. Little had changed. People were much the same as ever, and about the only big change he noticed was that you could now plug your laptop's modem directly into the pay phones.
During a break from the hospital, your reporter also had a chance to meet Joe and Emily, college friends he hadn't seen for 25 years. All three of us were very close during college, but drifted apart somehow, Joe to New York to work in the publishing business, Emily to Illinois to become a professor at the University of Chicago, and your reporter to Asia.
A few years ago, while scanning a newspaper sent from Chicago, your reporter noticed mention of a professor with the same name as Emily. Could they possibly be the same person? He wrote and it was. After more than 20 years he was back in contact with Emily, who replied that she had also met Joe again after almost 20 years and that they had liked each other so much, still, that they were engaged. Last year they got married, the first marriage for him at age 54 and her first marriage at age 47.
We met in Chicago's Loop and couldn't stop talking. But it was difficult to talk about the past and about what we had done in the 25 years that we had not seen each other. This was another life and another time and it somehow was not part of our life now. It was something that was now missing between us.
In Korea, a little-remembered incident of the Cold War continued to play itself out, and a mother finally met her daughter again after 32 years. During these 32 years, her daughter has been held captive in North Korea.
In December 1969, a KAL plane on an internal flight in South Korea was hijacked to North Korea by a North Korean spy who had infiltrated south. On the plane were 51 people, including a crew of 11. The crew members have been detained in North Korea since 1969, and despite continual calls for their release by their families in South Korea, almost nothing has been heard from them.
On February 26, Mrs. Li met her daughter, now Mrs. Pak, in a hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea, under the auspices of the family reunification program that is fitfully sputtering forward between the two Koreas. Accompanying the daughter were her husband and her own son and daughter. Although detained in North Korea, she had been allowed about as much freedom as was granted to North Korean citizens.
Mrs. Li broke into tears on meeting her daughter. "You are certainly my daughter. Thank you so much."
After 25 years or 32 years, you worry whether the person you are meeting again will even recognize you, or for that matter, really want to meet you again. There is such a wide ocean between you.
"I'm so glad I got to see my grandchildren," said Mrs. Li, and then informed her daughter that her father had died in 1979.
Mrs. Pak has led as normal a life as one might expect for someone kidnapped and held, presumably against her will. As well as getting married and raising a family, she also worked for a radio station, making broadcasts to South Korea. She claimed that several other crew members lived near her. Supposedly, the pilots were now serving in the North Korean air force.
This is the second time that North Korea has allowed family members from South Korea to meet South Koreans who have been detained in North Korea. The first time was in November. At that time, those who were aboard a South Korean ship captured by the North Koreans in 1987 were allowed to meet members of their families from South Korea.
At that meeting, one of the crew members declared, "It is an absurd fabrication that we were kidnapped." The fear that hangs over all the kidnapped is obvious.
The 20th century was one of cruelty. However, it is hard to think of any other government other North Korea's that uses the cruelty of kidnapping as a systematic instrument of policy.
As many as 60 Japanese are thought to have been kidnapped from the beaches or seashore of Japan by North Korean frogmen over the last 25 years. Among them, perhaps, is Megumi Yokota, who disappeared mysteriously on the night of November 15, 1977. It is thought she was abducted from a beach she passed on her way home. If Megumi is alive today, she is 37 years old. Her parents still continue their vigil for her.
The North Koreans have also kidnapped South Koreans whenever they got the chance. These are kidnappings the North Koreans admit to, in their own twisted logic. This is a particular cruelty, where all one knows is that a loved one has vanished, and may yet be alive.
China continues to reluctantly prop up North Korea, and the USA and South Korea try to push it to open in the hope, probably naive, that exposure to the outside world will somehow change it.
The best thing though, would be for North Korea to totally collapse and vanish from the face of the earth. Like East Germany, another government that failed its people, failed the world, and was a blight on the brotherhood of man, North Korea deserves to completely disappear, except as a bad memory. This could not come a day too soon for North Korea's own captive people or the Japanese and South Koreans kidnapped by North Korea and held for so long against their will.
Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.