Lost, Without a Trace

The 13-year-old girl was on her way home from badminton practice when she disappeared. Every night for five years, her mother kept the porch light on, hoping against hope for Megumi Yokota's return. That was almost 30 years ago. Then in 1996, Sakie Yokota and her husband learned that the North Koreans had snatched their daughter as part of a bizarre abduction program that had kidnapped scores of Japanese, perhaps as many as a hundred, in the 1970s and '80s.

Ever since, Megumi Yokota's story has been a sensation in the Japanese press. In 2002, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, admitted to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that North Korean agents had been abducting Japanese nationals. The ruler of the Hermit Kingdom offered, along with his apologies, a list of eight Japanese who North Korea claimed had died in captivity and five who were still living. The Yokotas were initially informed that Megumi had committed suicide in 1993; the elderly couple was handed a jar supposedly containing their daughter's ashes. But DNA tests showed that the remains belonged to two different people--neither of them Megumi. "I feel like I'm going to explode. How long do I have to endure this pain?" asks Sakie Yokota, now 70.

Possibly as long as the twisted, repressive North Korean regime lasts. The Dear Leader is not known for heeding humanitarian concerns. Still, the pressure is on Pyongyang. Last week Japanese and North Korean representatives met in Beijing to discuss "normalizing" relations between the two countries. High on the agenda: North Korea's nuclear program and the case of the missing abductees. (At the talks, Pyongyang bizarrely insisted that Tokyo hand over seven human-rights activists in Japan, calling them "criminal abductors of North Korean nationals.") In December, the United Nations adopted a resolution criticizing North Korea's human-rights record, including the abduction program. In the same month, a pair of Japanese support groups hosted a meeting of the families of kidnap victims that revealed how widely North Korean agents had ranged the globe looking for prey. Those abducted include not just Japanese and South Koreans (nearly 500 of whom have been taken over the course of half a century) but Lebanese, Thais, Malaysians, Chinese and allegedly --Dutch, French and Italians as well. The stories that are coming out about Pyongyang's body snatchers would make for a spy movie--a very tragic one.

The motivations of North Korea's rulers are often murky, but apparently Pyongyang geared up its abduction program to train better spies. In the mid-1970s, when his father, Kim Il Sung, was still alive, Kim Jong Il was in charge of espionage operations. He decided that North Korea's spies needed to look, dress and act like capitalists in order to blend in with their targets. The North Koreans were already in the kidnapping business by then. They had been snatching South Koreans ever since the end of the Korean War in 1953. In 1969, a South Korean airliner was hijacked and flown to Wonsan, a city across the DMZ. Pyongyang agreed to repatriate 39 people, but 11 South Koreans were held back--and have never returned.

Starting in 1977, North Korean agents were "ordered to bring foreign nationals in magjabi [a Korean term mean-ing 'grab anybody']," says Tsutomu Nishioka, vice president of the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN), who has interviewed former North Korean agents. Many were put to work as cultural trainers for North Korean spies in an elaborate stage set built in a huge tunnel beneath Pyongyang. According to a book written by Ahn Myong Jin, a former North Korean agent who defected to the South in 1993, "There were re-created examples of South Korean supermarkets, banks, high-class hotels, a night district, police stations, and elementary and middle schools." Ahn recalled "more than 80 people who trained us to become 'South Koreans.' Most of them were abducted from the South to be used as our teachers." Ahn said that the South Koreans he met "all seemed to have deep pain inside their heart. One teacher who taught us how to behave at drinking joints in the South said, 'You are sneaking into the South, but please do not bring [back] innocent South Korean children playing on the beach'."

The eccentric and sybaritic Jong Il was interested in more than better-trained spies. "He is a collector of human species," says Cho Gab Je, a leading South Korean journalist. A movie buff, Kim instructed his agents to snatch a famous South Korean actress, Choi Un-hee, and her husband, movie director Shin Sang-ok. Abducted from Hong Kong in 1978, Choi and Shin escaped to the West in 1986 and produced a remarkable book, "The Echo From Darkness." Among their recollections was an encounter with a Chinese woman who described how she had been abducted in Macau. Two men, pretending to be scions of wealthy Japanese families, appeared in the jewelry store where the woman was working. They lured her out on a boat ride--and then to a larger ship that whisked her off to North Korea. Choi also heard a sad tale in Pyongyang about a French woman. She claimed that she had been seduced by a good-looking North Korean agent who took her to meet his par--ents in Pyongyang. There, the agent vanished and the woman--yelling in protest--was taken away.

The North Korean agents enticed other victims with promises of work. Four Lebanese women were abducted in 1978 by agents posing as Japanese who visited a secretarial school in Beirut. The men offered the women well-paying jobs in Japanese corporations--and spirited them off to Pyongyang. After the Lebanese government and their families protested, the women were released in 1979. But one, who had already married a U.S. Army deserter and was pregnant, went back to North Korea. Her mother, Mountaha Haidar, is bereft. She was allowed to visit her daughter once in Pyongyang (but not to go to her home) and she receives one call a year. Her daughter is always guarded on the phone, asking only about her mother's well-being. Says Haidar: "North Korea destroyed the life of my daughter." Some of the Lebanese victims reportedly testified in 1979 that they were trained to become spies along with three French, two Dutch and three Italian women.

Stories of abductees are still surfacing. Last November, in the northern Thai village of Nong Sae, outside the city of Chang Mai, Sukham Panjoy and his son Banjong were idly watching the news on TV before dinner. Conversation suddenly stopped when they heard that a Thai woman who had disappeared from Macau in 1978 was alive and living in Pyongyang. Her name was Anocha, and she was Sukham Panjoy's long-lost younger sister. "I was so happy, but then I was suddenly angry that she was taken," says Sukham. "Since she's disappeared, I've never been the same."

The Panjoys were flown by two of the abductee-support groups to Tokyo, where they met the source of their good news: Charles Robert Jenkins, a U.S. Army deserter who had spent nearly 40 years in North Korea. Now living in Japan, Jenkins says he had been Anocha's neighbor in Pyongyang. Like many poor young women, Anocha had moved to Bangkok looking for employment in the 1970s. In 1977, she apparently went to work in Macau in a massage parlor. ("She was always very pretty," says her nephew Banjong, as he laid out her pictures for a NEWSWEEK reporter in the family farmhouse.) Abducted by the North Koreans, she was married off to another American Army deserter. Jenkins told the Panjoy family that Anocha had learned to speak English, enjoyed gardening and remained relatively happy.

The North Korean government has denied kidnapping Anocha and says she's not in the country. But the Thai government is pressing, and Pyongyang may not be able to stonewall forever. The perpetually cash-strapped North Korean government has a financial incentive to come clean. Lately, the U.S. Treasury Department has been pressuring banks in Macau suspected of laundering money for Kim Jong Il. Pyongyang fears that Washington will zero in on Kim's secret bank accounts in other countries, including Switzerland.

Desperate for money, North Korea is eager to normalize ties with Japan. One big reason: Japan has indicated that it will pay Pyongyang about $10 billion as compensation for the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. But, warns Shinzo Abe, Japan's hawkish chief cabinet secretary, "Without solving the abductees' case, Japan will not conclude the normalization talks."

Japan has other demands. Pyongyang holds some 1,800 Japanese wives of former North Korean residents who have followed their husbands into the Hermit Kingdom. And Tokyo wants Pyongyang to hand over Shin Kwang Soo, a big-time North Korean spy who is believed responsible for several abduction cases. One of them was little Megumi Yokota. Sakie Yokota clings to the hope that her daughter is still alive. After an abductee victim returning to Japan claimed that he saw Megumi Yokota still alive in 1994, the North Koreans changed Megumi's date of death from March 1993 to April 1994. It is certain that Megumi had a daughter, who still lives in North Korea. Sakie Yokota still dreams of the day when she can see both her daughter and granddaughter.