Stealing Lives To Pilfer Secrets
Friday, November 24, 2006
Years before Adam Walsh and Polly Klass and Elizabeth Smart, there was Megumi Yokota.
She was 13 and loved badminton and singing in the choir. Then one day 29 years ago, she started walking home from school in Niigata, Japan, with a friend. They parted ways at the intersection where Megumi always turned right, and her friend went left. Her family hasn't seen her since.
In the beginning, they thought she might have been injured and was unable to get home. Perhaps she ran away. As time passed, the thoughts became darker. Kidnapped, raped, murdered.
When the answer finally emerged 20 years later, it was worse than anything they had imagined. They were not up against a deranged individual, but a despotic government that could not be brought to justice. And their own government, for the longest time, refused to intercede.
Now, two D.C. filmmakers have chronicled the sad quest of Shigeru and Sakie Yokota in an 85-minute documentary, "Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story." With painstaking reporting and poignant interviews, the husband-and-wife team of Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan trace the frustrations of the Yokotas over the years as they try to make the case that their daughter was grabbed by North Korean agents to teach Japanese culture and language to their spies.
"Abduction," which opens Nov. 24 at the E Street Cinema, portrays the couple's rise to the fore of an anguished fraternity of parents -- both South Korean and Japanese -- who suspect their children have been kidnapped by the Pyongyang government.
Twenty years after Megumi disappears, her parents learn from a North Korean spy who defected that the kidnapping was a mistake. Her abductors hadn't realized she was so young. The rest of the abductees had been older, students and professionals in their early 20s. The Yokotas have learned to use this fact to attract international attention to their story.
Pursuing the narrative was Kim's idea. Then a host for the cable show "National Geographic on Assignment," she read a newspaper article several years ago about the kidnappings. She and Sheridan left their jobs -- he worked as a producer on the same show -- and spent two years doing research and interviews. They ran up their credit cards and took freelance jobs to finance the project.
After debuting at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah, and winning awards there and at others in Austin, Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto, "Abduction" was screened for the Japanese prime minister and members of the Japanese parliament in Tokyo this year. From Washington, it goes on to major U.S. cities, Canada and Great Britain.
In a piece of footage shot by a Japanese television station a year and a half after Megumi disappeared, a young Sakie Yokota stands before a camera and makes a tearful plea "to the people of Japan, if you know something about this, even if it's something small, please call." Later, she blames herself. "I'm not perfect. I wondered if I failed her. Or there was something I didn't know about her."
From there, Kim and Sheridan retrace the couple's transformation into the activists that no parents would ever wish to become.
The Yokotas join other families who are fighting for official recognition of North Korea's misdeeds. It takes 20 years for them to get the Japanese government to acknowledge the problem. When it does, the North Koreans simply deny it. "As the rest of the world knows, our country has nothing to do with abductions or other terrorist activities," North Korean state radio insists. Diplomatic negotiations begin, but are drawn out over the years.
Meanwhile, the families try to carry on with their lives, leaving notes behind on the doors of their old homes when they move. Decades later, it is the defector who offers information about what happened to their daughter. He says she was snatched from the street and taken to a cargo ship, where she vomited and cried for her mother on the trip to Pyongyang, clawing the walls until her hands bled.
The Yokotas meet the families of other abductees: In Fukui, a 24-year-old carpenter, Yashushi Chimura, and his date, Fukui Hamamoto, disappeared from a beach. In Kagoshima, a 24-year-old phone company employee, Shuichi Ichikawa, vanished with his girlfriend, Rumiko Masumoto, also 24, after they went to watch the sunset at the beach. In Niigata, a 22-year-old college student named Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, went missing while on a date.
Sakie changes from a helpless, weeping mother into a poised, relentless advocate. She and her husband visit Washington with a group of other parents to testify before Congress. They protest outside the ruling party's headquarters in Japan. When North Korea seeks rice and other humanitarian aid from Japan, she and others urge the prime minister to link any aid to admission by North Korea of the kidnappings, and the return of their family members.
"I'm not a strong person," Sakie says at one point, sitting in the tiny apartment she shares with her husband. But the cause has taken over her life. "When she disappeared, the sadness knocked me as low as I could go." She turned to Bible classes for the first time and found solace. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," she says.
"If there's a God, then He'd give Megumi back to us," her husband retorts.
It is not until 2002 that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acknowledges the kidnappings. Encouraged, but not satisfied, the families press Japan to find out more about their loved ones and bring them back.
"I strongly protested to Kim Jong Il," said Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, after North Korea finally confirms that the Japanese indeed had been kidnapped so they could teach Japanese to Pyongyang's agents and its spies could assume their identities.
Eventually, the North Korean government says that eight of the Japanese abductees are dead, and allows the remaining five to return to Japan. North Korea says Megumi committed suicide, but her parents remain dubious.
The film depicts lives that have been frozen in time by the abductions, and aged by them, as well. A mother grows gray and dies. A father, on his deathbed, apologizes to his missing daughter that he will not be there to see her come home. Another father dusts his son's model airplanes, still sitting in the bedroom he last occupied 30 years ago. A young girl, wearing her mother's kimono and her first hint of lipstick, gazes from a photograph taken months before she disappeared.
"Behind every geopolitical mess you see people like this whose lives have been drastically altered in some way," Kim says. "You'd think this could never happen in real life. But I can imagine my mom and dad standing outside a stone government building and shouting at the officials inside."
The film, she says, resonates on another level as well.
"Without passion you will fail, because that is the only thing that will sustain you."