This article originally appeared in the Sankei Shimbun morning edition, August 31, 2012. All ages and dates are counted from that date.
“I regret to inform you…”
That was how then-Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Shigeo Uemura began while speaking to Yokota Megumi’s father, Shigeru (79) and mother, Sakie (76), in a room at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Iikura Guest House in Azabudai, Tokyo, on September 17, 2002. At a summit in Pyongyang between then-Prime Minister Junichio Koizumi and former North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, Kim had admitted to abducting Japanese citizens and apologized. Soon after, the victims’ family members, who had been waiting at the Iikura Guest House, were informed of their relatives’ fate.
“Your daughter has died.” In response to this definitive tone, Shigeru fired off questions in rapid succession: “When?” “How?” The only response he got was, “We do not have any details.”
The Japanese government then dispatched an investigative unit which conducted multiple meetings with those who were familiar with the case. Their investigation resulted in the following explanation from the North Koreans: “In April of 1994, after entering the Pyongyang City No. 49 Medical Clinic for treatment for a psychological condition, [Megumi Yokota] committed suicide by hanging herself from a nearby pine tree while taking a stroll through the clinic grounds.”
As proof, North Korea produced an apparent hospital “death registry.” On the back of this form was written, “Registry of Patient Entering and Leaving the Hospital,” but the words, “Entering and Leaving the Hospital,” had been crossed out multiple times and the word, “Death,” written above.
At the time, there was awareness that the registry was a forgery. The Japanese government raised these suspicions with the North Koreans, pointing out that the document was of a “very low level of credibility.” Their suspicion was supported given that the words, “Entering and Leaving the Hospital” came around the point same in time that the news of Megumi’s ongoing survival came to light in 2001.
As of 1994, Megumi had been living in the same invitation center as some of the other abductees who had eventually returned to Japan. The abductees were sure that Megumi had been taken to the hospital, but when asked about her alleged death, they replied that they had only heard rumors to that effect thereafter.
Why was she declared dead? The origins of the “Megumi has died” scenario sketched by North Korea have started to come into view, however dimly.
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Two years ago in July, Kim Hyon-hui (50), a former espionage agent and one of the people responsible for the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, visited Japan for the first time. At a villa in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, Kim met with the family members of Yaeko Taguchi, who was abducted from Japan at the age of 22.
The former spy held a Japanese passport under the name of Mayumi Hachiya, pretending to be a Japanese woman. Taguchi was the one who was forced to teach Kim how to become Japanese. Kim had come to Japan in order to speak with Taguchi’s family members about Kim’s memories of her.
In the evening of that same July day, the father, Shigeru (79) and mother, Sakie (76) of Megumi Yokota, who had been abducted at the age of thirteen, joined in the meeting. Megumi had been forced to teach Japanese to a spy and colleague of Kim’s in North Korea. Sakie revealed what Kim told her: “Yaeko and Megumi are surely still alive. But they will both likely be the last ones to leave North Korea.”
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“Bring back native instructors so our agents can learn how to pose as locals.” Thus did former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il order his spy agency in 1976 to begin abductions of Japanese. In the one to two years following Megumi’s and Taguchi’s abductions, many more Japanese were abducted by North Korea. Kim was one of eight students who took the first round of lessons on how to pose as someone from another country.
Kim lived with Taguchi for twenty months, from July 1981 until March 1983. Kim perfectly imitated everything about being a Japanese woman, not only the language, but even Japanese table manners and the way in which a Japanese woman washes her face.
At exactly the same time, Megumi was teaching Japanese while living together with Kim’s classmate, Kim Suk-hee. After agent Kim Suk-hee parted ways with Megumi, she invited Kim Hyon-hui and together they went just once to visit Megumi.
Kim Hyon-hui had received a written order directly from former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il regarding the bombing of the Korean Airlines flight. To this day, North Korea refuses to admit responsibility for the act of terrorism which claimed the lives of all 115 people aboard the flight and which was intended to disrupt the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Instead, North Korea claims that “Kim Hyon-hui” does not exist, and that the whole things is a “fraud cooked up by South Korea.”
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Did Megumi know too much?
When Kim Hyon-hui visited Japan, she told members of the Sukuu-kai—a support organization for abductees and their families—that, “Megumi and Yaeko are involved in the secrets surrounding the Korean Airlines flight bombing, but I think there may be other secrets, as well.”
It may be that Megumi was in contact with Kim Jong-Il’s entire family. According to information revealed to the South Korean authorities by a former close official of Kim Jong-Il’s, “For one to two years around 1995, Megumi Yokota was the home tutor to one of Kim Jong-Il’s children.”
The Sukuu-kai emphasizes a story heard by a former member of the North Korean People’s Army who defected from the North in 2007 from his friend, whose father was an official in the strategy section of the Korean Workers’ Party espionage agency that carried out the abductions.
“Megumi has seen things that she should not have seen. She knows a lot. If [the North Koreans] let her go home, she will divulge the secrets of the liaison office (which is the base for the espionage agency).” His statement was made around the end of 2004 or the beginning of 2005, the same time that forensic tests carried out in Japan determined that the skeletal remains purported to be Megumi’s were in fact a forgery.
One calls to mind here the assertion that Megumi and Ms. Taguchi are “the victims who know too much.”
A government official has said that “there is information that [Megumi and Yaeko] are alive. Day by day, the information keeps coming in from multiple sources [that they are alive]. This information is of varying degrees of certainty, but we have recently received information as to the abductees’ whereabouts. The information that they are alive,” he continued, “is a trump card for negotiations. Having information is a very important thing.”
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It has now been ten years since the summit meeting between Japan and North Korea. In order to help ensure a speedy return of the abductees to Japan, the Sankei Shimbun, which was the first to report on these abductions, will continue its efforts to verify what happened and what the Japanese government is and will be doing about on the issue.