Whither the Abductees in a Post-Kim Jong-il North Korea?

With news of the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, we immediately thought of the implications for the Japanese citizens abducted by Kim’s regime and never returned. So we asked Chris Sheridan, who made Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story with co-director Patty Kim and Academy Award-winning producer Jane Campion, to provide us with an update.

KIM JONG-IL DEATH BRINGS NEW HOPE, FEARS FOR JAPANESE ABDUCTEES
by Chris Sheridan

The death of Kim Jong-il this week is a bittersweet moment for the families of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean secret agents in the 1970s and 1980s. On the one hand, many of them are pleased the man they believe is personally responsible for their loved ones’ disappearance is now history. But they are now faced with uncertainty as they deal with Kim Jong-un, a new leader whose positions on every issue, including the fate of their relatives, is a total mystery.

In 2002, Kim Jong-il admitted his secret agents kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens, including Megumi Yokota, a 13-year-old girl who was walking home from school in 1977 when she vanished. Megumi’s parents were the centerpiece for our film Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story as their struggle to get answers about their daughter’s disappearance went to the highest levels of government eventually affecting Japan’s discussions over North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear weapons program.

North Korea returned five of the 13 people in October, 2002. They claim the rest are dead, the victims of various accidents. Megumi, say North Korean officials, killed herself. But Megumi’s parents don’t believe North Korea’s claim and with the support of the Japanese government, have pressed for more concrete proof ever since. In 2004, North Korea returned what it claimed were her charred remains but the results of DNA tests proved inconclusive.

After the announcement of Kim Jong-il’s death, Megumi’s parents, who are the most well-known of all the abductees’ families, summed up the sentiment of many of the relatives of those kidnapped. “I’m not sure if this will lead in a positive or negative direction,” said Shigeru Yokota, Megumi’s 79-year-old father. “But I fear there will be chaos inside North Korea, which means they’ll stay away from the abduction issue.” Meanwhile, Megumi’s mother, Sakie, put her thoughts about Kim’s death very simply, “I wish Kim Jong-il had released the people who were abducted before he passed away.”

Shigeo Iizuka, whose sister is among those kidnapped citizens that North Korea claims are dead, said Monday, “I’m worried about who’ll be in charge of resolving the abduction problem on the North Korean side.” And, like many families of the abductees, he wonders if Kim Jong-un will even care enough to want to doanything. “Is Mr. Jong-un a person who’ll understand us? Or are we going to have to be more aggressive?” Kenichi Ichikawa, whose brother was kidnapped in 1978 — North Korea claims he’d since drowned — hopes that Kim Jong-un will view the abduction issue as a relic from a past government, and that “will lead to the possibility the abductees will be freed.”

Meanwhile, those Japanese citizens who were returned home to Japan in 2002, after spending a quarter of a century in North Korea, all expressed very similar concerns over the safety of fellow abductees who may still be alive in North Korea. “I ask the Japanese government to carefully monitor the situation and do its best to ensure the safety of those who are still there,” said Kaoru Haisuke, who was taken in 1978.

Some see the transition ofpower in North Korea as a clear chance to gain answers, and ultimately rescue loved ones — children, brothers, and sisters — who’d been kidnapped decades ago. Hitomi Soga, who was kidnapped along with her mother back in 1978 and returned to Japan in 2002, said, “I hope utmost efforts will be made [by those concerned] to make use of this opportunity and bring home all abductees.”

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