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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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