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Abducted: The Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea

New Podcast Series: Abducted – Four Stories, Four Lives

They were ordinary people abducted from Japan by North Korea. Join us to see how their stories changed so many lives and why they're still relevant today.



JAPAN Forward presents "Abducted," a new podcast series that investigates the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea. Hosted by journalists Arielle Busetto and Agnes Tandler, these talks give listeners an insight into the lives of four different people who were forever changed by a series of terrible crimes. They are lives that are later all linked together in unexpected ways. It is the first-ever podcast series dedicated to this topic.  

(Agnes Tandler, Tokyo)

"She just vanished," says Yuko Toishi as she stands on the grounds of an old Shinto shrine in Niigata, a quiet town on the Sea of Japan. Only a couple of hundred meters away is the street from where 13-year-old Megumi Yokota vanished on her way home from badminton practice. It was in 1977. 

Toishi was one year older than Megumi. They were schoolmates and members of the same badminton club. Toishi remembers Megumi and her unexplained disappearance well. "Nobody had a clue," she tells Arielle Busetto and myself. Arielle and I have both spent months investigating and interviewing people who could give us insight into a story that has gripped Japan for decades. Mainly, because the story seemed too absurd to be true. Instead, when we told friends about the stories we were investigating, we were often met with reactions of disbelief.       

Megumi Yokota stands in the schoolyard of her junior high school in Niigata City with sakura blossoms in the background. Her father Shigeru took this photo in april 1977, about six before she was abducted by North Korean agents. (© The Yokota family)

Mysterious Disappearances

In Japan in the 1970s and 1980s people mysteriously disappeared from beaches and port towns without a trace. They were ordinary people abducted from Japan by North Korea. Because the crimes and their motives were so bizarre, it took two decades before the truth finally came out. For years, almost nobody believed in the possibility that North Korea was behind the unexplained disappearances. JAPAN Forward's new podcast series sheds light on the abductions issue. 

This podcast series tells the stories of four different people. Their fates all link up only decades later when the abductions finally became public knowledge. 

The first episode features Takuya Yokota, who is still searching for his older sister Megumi. She disappeared on her way from school when she was 13. In the second episode, we hear from Kaoru Hasuike, a young, bright student who was captured and brought to North Korea. Kaoru spent 24 years in the country and was allowed to return to Japan in 2002. 

Our third episode centers around the work of Masami Abe, a young crime reporter with too much time on his hands. When Masami started investigating a strange lead, he had no idea what an extraordinary story he would eventually unfold. And, last but not least, in our fourth episode we meet Koichiro Iizuka who can't remember his mother, because she disappeared when he was only one year old. 


Unsolved to this Very Day

Estimates vary, but more than 800 Japanese citizens might have been taken to North Korea against their will. Officially, Japan has only recognized 17 cases. Moreover, the abductions were not only limited to Japan. North Korea also took people from South Korea and other countries like Lebanon, Romania, Thailand and Macao. Many disappearances still remain unsolved to this very day. 

Understandingly, the issue evokes great anger, despair, and frustration. Victims and their families feel betrayed and let down not only by subsequent governments and politicians but also by the media and everyone else with the power to take up the issue. However, this is not the only reason why the stories are still relevant today, even decades after the crimes began.  

Takuya Yokota, accompanied by other members of the victims' families association, speaks to reporters after meeting with US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield on April 18. (©Kyodo)

Dead Ends and the Future Ahead

Even today, North Korea remains one of the most isolated, secretive countries in the world. Nicknamed the "Hermit Kingdom" due to its political isolation and its cult of personality around the ruling Kim family, it is also one of the few countries still nominally under communist rule. As one of the abduction victims, Kaoru Hasuike, told us, it is a mystery to the outside world. Thus, negotiations with North Korea have been protracted and difficult, mostly leading to dead ends. There is very little indication that North Korea is showing any willingness to resolve the abductions issue.  

North Korea is a rogue state. It is not part of any international framework where certain rules apply or can be enforced. Should we experience a breakdown of the old international order, more countries could feel emboldened to act in the way that North Korea does without fearing retaliation. As we enter an age of disorder, North Korea serves as a reminder that what now seems like a historical anomaly may well become an unwelcome feature lying ahead in our near future. Right now the abductions might look like a problem from the distant past. But from here, they look increasingly like a problem that will also mark the future.


Author: Agnes Tandler