Megumi: The girl who never came home
Four decades ago, a Japanese girl disappeared. Only after a terrorist confessed, would a stunned world learn that she had been kidnapped by North Korea
At a recent presentation at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan, a full auditorium sat watching a 30-minute animated film. The anime, Megumi, is not fiction. The audience watched in total silence.
Megumi Yokota, the subject of the film, was just 13 years old the night she did not return from badminton practice at her middle school in Niigata, Japan.
Noting her lateness, her mother Sakie, went to the school to look for the child. Megumi wasn’t there. Sakie ran back to the family house, found a flashlight, gathered Megumi’s twin younger brothers, Takuya and Tetsuya, and set out in a search for her missing daughter.
Fearing that Megumi had been robbed, injured in an accident, or even raped, an increasingly frantic Sakie ran up and down the streets of their neighborhood, calling out Megumi’s name. Takuya and Tetsuya, who were just eight years old at the time, cried as they followed their mother into an abandoned old hotel that the local kids all said was haunted. Megumi was not there.
The young boys were even more terrified as Sakie went into the eerie grounds of the local Shinto shrine, her flashlight swooping back and forth across the wooden buildings and statues. Crisscrossing the area streets and thoroughfares, Sakie and her two children eventually came to the sea, where the waves crashed against the rocky shore.
Megumi was nowhere to be found.
Sakie rushed back home again and telephoned Megumi’s father, Shigeru, who was working at a Bank of Japan branch office in Niigata. He raced home and joined the search. Throughout the night, the Yokotas, joined by police, went everywhere and spoke to everyone possible.
By late that night, November 15, 1977, they had nothing.
The next day, there was still no Megumi. The Yokotas made flyers and stood on street corners seeking information. Police found not a single clue. Megumi had vanished into thin air: No witnesses, no evidence, no body, no sign of struggle, no ransom note, and no contact from a happy girl who had loved ballet, playing with dolls and who was doted on by her parents.
“If I had to compare my sister to a flower I would compare her to a sunflower. She was always bright, happy,” Megumi’s younger brother Takuya said in an interview with Asia Times. “When Megumi disappeared an oppressive atmosphere settled on our home. We spoke to one another less often.”
Whenever Megumi’s parents would see someone in the papers or on television who looked remotely like their daughter, they would contact the editor or the station manager and ask for the name of the person depicted. It was never Megumi.
For 20 years, the family had no idea what had happened. However, in 1987, a tragedy in the Middle East cast a light on the astonishing fate of Megumi.
On November 29, 1987, a pair of terrorists, ostensibly Japanese, blew up Korean Air flight 858 in the skies over the Middle East. All aboard were killed.
Confronted in Bahrain Airport, one of the terrorists committed suicide. The other failed to bite down on the cyanide capsule in her mouth when a quick-thinking policewoman intervened.
Although the second terrorist carried a Japanese passport, she was not Japanese. She was Kim Hyon-hui, an elite North Korean spy who had been ordered to bomb the aircraft in the lead-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Under questioning by South Korean agents, the glamorous Kim not only admitted her crimes, she also provided details as to how she had managed to pass as a Japanese national.
In Pyongyang, while training for the bombing mission that would kill 115 innocents, Kim said she had shared an apartment with a Japanese woman who went by the name Lee Un-hae. “Lee Un-hae” was actually Yeoko Taguchi, a Japanese woman who had been abducted by North Koreans to help train the state’s spies.
Kim then revealed something even more astounding: Megumi Yokota was in Pyongyang, too. Her name had been changed to “Oh Ki” and she had been forced to be the personal tutor for the second-generation leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il.
‘In our hearts’
It was not until 1997, that a Japanese government official telephoned the Yokotas to share the bombshell information that Kim Hyon-hui had revealed 10 years before.
It is unclear why the information took so long to be passed to the family. Many speculate that Tokyo knew about Megumi but decided to stay silent for fear of getting drawn into an intractable international incident. Others suspect that corrupt politicians were receiving benefits from the North, and working to keep Japan-North Korea relations open. Yet others point to the lack of cooperation among various departments of the Japanese government, as well as a dearth of Korean speakers who can liaise with their South Korean intelligence counterparts.
Whatever the reason, the Yokotas’ world was turned upside down. “Megumi has always been with us in our hearts,” Takuya said. “Even though we can’t see her, the bond continues.”
Takuya refuses to speculate on why it took so long for authorities to connect the dots. The cruel irony of the revelation for the Yokotas was that Megumi was alive, but was trapped in one of the world’s most extreme dictatorships.
As the family digested the extraordinary news, the revelation that Japanese citizens were being held captive in North Korea landed like a bomb among the Japanese body politic. Cases of unresolved missing people were reopened one by one as police fanned out to re-investigate, taking into account the previously unthought-of possibility that those who disappeared might have been kidnapped by North Korean agents.
Sure enough, when police data from across Japan was mapped, a chilling pattern emerged.
Of the thousands of unresolved missing-person cases in Japan since the late 1970s, many were clustered on the Japan Sea side of Honshu. For years, North Korean vessels were apparently used to launch covert amphibious rendition teams onto isolated shores at night to abduct anyone who might be useful for the regime’s expansive terror machine.
Many were couples. Pyongyang had specifically sought young couples who would be able to bear and raise children who could speak perfect Japanese, but who would also be programmed to be perfectly loyal to North Korea: the perfect spies.
The abductions would become a central issue in Pyongyang-Tokyo relations. And Megumi would rise as the most prominent among them, the subject of films, documentaries, songs and the anime Megumi, which aired at Chiba University.
Tomorrow: Part 2 – a story that gripped a nation