Lost, without a Trace; Talks on Normalizing Relations with Japan Are Spotlighting Just How Vast Pyongyang's Kidnap Scheme Was

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Byline: Hideko Takayama and Evan Thomas (With Joe Cochrane in Bangkok)

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. …