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Japan Haunted By Chilling History Of North Korean Kidnappings

For years, Pyongyang kidnapped hundreds of people from neighboring countries, in order to train spies in foreign languages and cultures, or to steal identities. Today, their families are still looking for them.

Shigeru Yokota, father of kidnapped Megumi
Shigeru Yokota, father of kidnapped Megumi
Yann Rousseau

TOKYO — When Rumiko Masumoto, a 24-year-old secretary, left home the evening of August 12, 1978, she told her parents she'd only be gone a few minutes. She and her fiancé Shuichi Ichikawa were going to take photos of the sunset on Fukiage Beach in Kagoshima. It was muggy out that evening in the southern Japanese town, but the sky was clear. She would come back quickly so she could spend time with her brother Teruaki, a student at Hokkaido University who was home for a few days on school holiday.

"That was the last time we saw her," the brother recalled recently.

As night fell, there was no sign of her. Her family started to worry immediately. "That's not like her. We all instantly knew that something had happened," recounts Teruaki Masumoto, now 61 years old.

Ichikawa's parents were also distressed that their son had not returned. They looked around town and at the beach, and then contacted the police. The next day, the couple's car was found in a parking lot hidden by pine trees, near the sea. It was locked. Inside were Rumiko's purse and camera. The camera's film showed anodyne images taken the same evening of their disappearance, but no indication of what happened. No witnesses. "The police had nothing, and people were coming up with all sorts of theories," says Masumoto. "They ran away, they drowned, or even that they were picked up by a UFO."

The investigation ended, and the families grieved, but ultimately got on with their lives. Then, in 1980, a journalist called with a crazy theory. There had been a strange increase in disappearances of couples or young people along that particular Japanese border during the summer of 1978. What if they had all been kidnapped by North Korean agents? "No one could have imagined something like that," says Teruaki, who was dubious at the time. But the journalist laid out the facts. There were at least eight suspected disappearances in two months, a North Korean spy ship spotted nearby, strange radio transmissions picked up near the coast, and — most importantly — a failed kidnapping, further north but still not far from that same beach. Three days after Rumiko's disappearance, two men speaking a strange language had seized two kids, beating and gagging them before trying to put them in two large sacks. Two passers-by had stopped the abduction. "We began to believe it," says Masumoto.

Slowly, the evidence began to accumulate. "The police realized that North Korean agents were trying to enter Japan from the sea. They found radio transmitters, recorded conversations and salvaged skiffs," remembers Tsutomu Nishioka, an international relations professor who became the president of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN).

In November 1987, North Korean agent Kim Hyun Hee posed as a Japanese woman and successfully placed a bomb on a Korean Air flight, which blew up the plane midair over the Andaman Sea. When she was arrested, Kim admitted that she had acted under orders from Kim Jong-il, who at the time had been designated as the successor to his father and founder of the Stalinist North Korean regime. She was able to pass as a Japanese citizen after having been trained in Pyongyang by Japanese who the regime had kidnapped for this exact purpose.

Kim gave him a list of names.

Over the years, Pyongyang has essentially been collecting humans. First it was hundreds of South Koreans, often fishermen kidnapped at sea. Then men and women of other nationalities in order to train spies in foreign languages and cultures, or to steal identities and plant sleeper agents in neighboring nations. In NARKN's narrow office, near the Gokoku-ji Temple in Tokyo, Tsutomu Nishioka skims the long list of kidnap victims. In addition to Japanese, who started to disappear in 1977, there are Malaysians, Chinese, Lebanese, a Thai woman and even three French people, identities unknown.

On the walls are photos of those who have disappeared, including Megumi Yokota, who was grabbed in the port city of Niigata in November 1977, in an alley between her badminton club and her house. She was 13 years old at the time, and eventually became a cause célèbre in Japan.

A quarter-century after the abductions, North Korea finally admitted to them. Pressured by the international community, which had discovered the nature of his military programs, Kim Jong-il was looking to improve relations with Tokyo. In 2002, he agreed to meet Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, in Pyongyang, where Kim gave him a list of names of Japanese citizens that he said renegade groups within his government had kidnapped on their own initiative.

The dictator explained that he had already punished the responsible. Out of 17 disappeared people officially listed by Tokyo, Pyongyang only acknowledged 13 kidnappings and insisted that eight of those people had already died. The other five were authorized to return to Japan one month later. With some difficulty, those five told of their kidnapping on the beach, the beatings, the transfer from a small dinghy to a large cargo ship, the arrival in Pyongyang, the long isolation and the indoctrination sessions. Not to mention 20 years of another life, in another reality.

But on Oct. 16, 2002, neither Rumiko, Shuichi, nor Megumi got off the plane in front of the world's cameras. They were on the list of the deceased. Officially, Rumiko died of a heart attack in 1981, when she was only 27. Megumi allegedly committed suicide in 1994, leaving behind a young daughter, born from a union with a kidnapped South Korean. Two years later, North Korean authorities sent her parents ashes, presenting them as their daughter's remains. When Megumi was born, her parents had saved her umbilical cord, a Japanese tradition. Now, the cord was brought out for DNA testing. "The tests showed that the ashes were probably the remains of a man," Shigeru Yokota, Megumi's father, wearily explained at a conference in Tokyo. "We can therefore believe that she is likely still alive."

Teruaki Masumoto harbors the same hope. He doesn't believe in the authenticity of the death certificate he received from Pyongyang, which claims his sister's remains were lost in a flood. He also found witnesses who confirm that his sister was seen in Pyongyang several years after the official report of her death.

He calls her by her childhood nickname.

Convinced that the North Korean regime continues to hide both the truth and their children, families have continued to fight. One Monday morning this past October, Teruaki Masumoto — now retired after years of negotiating tuna prices at the Tsukiji fish market — was at Radio Shiokaze (Sea Breeze), created 12 years ago to send messages to kidnap victims. Twice a month, he comes and reads a letter for his sister, who he calls by her childhood nickname, as well as messages of encouragement from parents of other kidnapped people. The messages are sent via shortwave radio to the other side of the Sea of Japan, to the Korean peninsula.

"We know that we're being heard, thanks to testimonials from North Koreans who escaped the country," explains Kazuhiro Araki, the president of COMJAN, a commission created to investigate more than 200 cases of suspected North Korean-linked disappearances.

In addition to personal messages, the radio broadcasts information on North Korea in Korean, Japanese, Chinese and English. "Every day, we broadcast two and a half hours of programming that Pyongyang always tries to block out," says Tatsuru Murao, the Shiokaze technician. "We will continue for as long as we have to."

Recently, the families and their supporters have found a new source of hope. "The rare occasions when Pyongyang releases information is during times of high geopolitical tension," explained Tsutomu Nishioka, citing George W. Bush's inclusion of Pyongyang in his 2002 Axis of Evil speech. "In the past, when the Japanese government approached North Korean authorities during a calm period with offers of humanitarian aid or cooperative projects, they wouldn't admit anything about the kidnappings."

Shinzo Abe, the current conservative Japanese Prime Minister, has made the kidnappings a personal affair. He had been in Pyongyang back in 2002, seated next to Junichiro Koizumi, when Kim Jong-il brought out the list of kidnap victims. Every day since then, Abe has worn a blue ribbon on the lapel of his suit jacket in homage to the kidnapped, whose families he meets with regularly. "This is to remind myself every morning that I have to bring these Japanese people back to their country," he declared during a recent speech in Washington.

With limited leverage alone, Abe regularly urges the United States to include the kidnap victims' release in their demands to Pyongyang. When Donald Trump declared in his September speech to the United Nations that North Korea had "kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country," the Japanese executive branch celebrated.

The U.S. president confirmed that he had met with the families of kidnap victims during his official visit to Tokyo in the beginning of November. "In this context, we have an exceptional window of opportunity. But this will be very difficult. We don't know how Kim Jong-un will react to pressure," says Tsutomu Nishioka.

Teruaki Masumoto notes that 2018 will be 40 years since he last saw his sister. "I don't have crazy hopes," he says. "Rumiko is probably dead. I just want to know the truth."

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