Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Megumi Yokota Story

What does a so-called pariah nation have to do to be treated like a pariah? That is what the parents of Megumi Yokota would like to know. The North Korean regime admits it kidnapped their daughter and has never satisfactorily explained her fate, but has faced little or no consequences from the Japanese government as a result. The nearly forty year ordeal of the Yokotas is the subject of the heartbreaking documentary, Abduction: the Megumi Yokota Story (trailer here), airing on PBS’s Independent Lens on June 19th.

North Korea’s guilt in the Yokota case is not in dispute. Despite the initial denials of the state media, North Korea officially admits kidnapping thirteen Japanese citizens (the film estimates real number to be around 100), including the then thirteen year-old Yokota. However, what happened to her in North Korea remains shrouded in mystery, as the government’s official story constantly evolves.

According to “An,” a North Korean defector interviewed in the film, abductees were forced to teach spies in training the Japanese language and culture. He explains: “At that time, every North Korean spy who infiltrated Japan tried to kidnap someone.” Typically, they targeted victims in their early twenties. At thirteen, Yokota was actually a mistake, but her abductors never considered turning around to return her. As An describes the appalling treatment endured by the frightened girl during her transit to North Korea, it is both heartrending and infuriating.

As would be expected, her family also suffered greatly as a result of her abduction, with their marriage severely strained by guilt, uncertainty, and exhaustion. While her mother finds some solace in Christianity, her father appears to be a near shell of a man. It is impossible not to sympathize with them or to be moved by their daughter’s plight. By all accounts in the film, Yokota was a bright, happy young girl with a particular talent for music, heard taking a solo in Schumann’s “Gypsy Life” during a school production.

In response to revelations of the North Korean abductions, the Japanese government responded with some strongly worded statements and large shipments of food aid to the DPRK. That surely taught them a lesson. It is clear most Japanese politicians would like the abduction issue to simply disappear. When pressed by demonstrators, one arrogant LDP politician actually says: “Get elected and then come talk to me.” Exasperated with Japanese inaction after yet another incident of North Korean bad faith, her father complains at one point: “If this happened in America, they’d go to war.” (Though one fears our leaders would be just as inclined to policies of appeasement.)

Through news footage and interview segments directors Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim have assembled a documentary that is part spy mystery and part family tragedy. At crucial points in the narrative, they create real suspense through their careful presentation and editing. Executive-produced by Jane Campion of The Piano fame, Abduction had a long theatrical run in Japan, and now after making the festival circuit, will air on most PBS markets next Thursday (in New York look for it at 12:30 am on Saturday the 21st). It is an important film, revealing the very real human suffering deliberately caused by a thoroughly evil government.