Show of Japan kidnap photos stirs emotion

Kim Jong-Il has no chance to see it, but thousands have flocked to an exhibition here of happy family photos of a Japanese girl kidnapped by North Korea, fuelling anger against his regime.

Megumi Yokota was snatched away in 1977 when the then 13-year-old schoolgirl was on her way home. She has since become a symbol of Japanese abduction victims, an issue hanging over relations between the two countries.

The exhibition shows her life before the kidnapping. Among the 70 shots is a close-up with a big smile and dimples.
Another shows her family at the beach, a year before she was taken aboard a North Korean spy boat.

The images have gripped the nation, with an average of 1 700 people visiting daily until the five-day show closed on Tuesday in a Tokyo suburb. The exhibition will move to Megumi’s hometown and elsewhere in the coming weeks.

“I want people to know such a horrible thing can happen to a very ordinary family out of the blue,” said Megumi’s mother Sakie Yokota.

“I feel thankful because people have come to understand that Japan is menaced by crimes committed by another country,” she said. “We still feel the pain because the question remains to be solved.”

A similar exhibition was held in downtown Tokyo in November, sparking an outcry among its 19 000 visitors against both the kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s and their government’s reaction.

“I have a daughter of Megumi’s age. It would be torturous being in the same situation,” pensioner Hirotsune Ozawa said tearfully. “I think the government is too soft on North Korea.”

Championing his policy of “dialogue and pressure,” Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has resisted widespread calls to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang for lying about the kidnap cases.

Japanese police probes started pointing to the possibility of North Korean abductions in the mid-1990s.

But North Korea waited until 2002 to admit to the kidnappings of Megumi Yokota and a dozen other Japanese, who were used to train spies in Japanese language and culture.

Hundreds of South Koreans as well as some other Asians, including those from Thailand and Macau, are also alleged to have been kidnapped by the North.

Five of the Japanese victims and their families have since been repatriated as Tokyo pledged to negotiate a normalisation of ties which could bring massive aid to Pyongyang.

But North Korea has said Megumi and the other abductees are dead—without producing evidence that has convinced Tokyo—and declared the whole kidnapping issue closed.

“We have kept on pinning our hopes on the government from time to time although the situation remained unclear,” Megumi’s mother said. “I don’t understand diplomatic horse-trading, but we haven’t given up hope.”

Tokyo believes that they must still be alive but are being kept under wraps because they know too many of the North’s secrets.

North Korea said Megumi killed herself in 1994 after getting married and giving birth to a daughter whose DNA sample proved the blood link.

In late 2004, it handed over photographs showing a grown-up Megumi alive in North Korea as well as what it called her ashes—which Japanese DNA examiners said belonged to someone else.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution in November, criticising North Korea’s human-rights situation and its failure to resolve the abductions issue.

In December, Japan named a special envoy on human rights in the communist state, following a similar appointment by the United States.

Her husband, a former Bank of Japan official who shot the pictures, is now recuperating at home from exhaustion after years of travelling the country with little rest, campaigning to find his daughter.

Megumi’s case took a turn last week when a North Korean spy, 76-year-old Sin Guang Su, was quoted by a former kidnap victim as one of her abductors.

After years of spying activities in Japan, Sin was arrested in 1985 in South Korea but was released in 2000 under an amnesty and sent home to a hero’s welcome. Tokyo has been demanding his custody.

“Many visitors offered to provide help when they came out,” said Satomi Mori, the show’s organiser. “It is unusual for a photo exhibition.”

In one corner of the show, there was a handmade 1975 New Year card sent by Megumi from a school winter camp to her parents and twin brothers, four years her junior.

It read: “I will come back soon!! Please wait for me.” - AFP

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