Yokota couple: Meeting a ‘miracle’

Abductee's parents hope encounter won't be politicized

by Reiji Yoshida and Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writers

The parents of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korean agents in 1977, said Monday their dramatic meeting in Mongolia last week with her 26-year-old granddaughter was “like a miracle” and they were also very happy to see her 10-month-old baby, both for the first time.

Shigeru and Sakie Yokota said, however, that they have no idea if their emotional meeting with their granddaughter, Kim Eun Gyong, will have any political impact on Tokyo-Pyongyang relations.

“It was just a meeting of an ordinary grandfather and grandmother” with their granddaughter, Sakie Yokota, 78, told reporters at their Kawasaki home.

“We really don’t know (if and how) it will be used politically,” she said, adding she just hopes the meeting will offer hope for the relatives of other abductees.

During their March 10-14 stay in Ulan Bator, the Yokotas met Kim Eum Gyong and her baby daughter, who appeared healthy and weighed 11 kg.

Kim Eun Gyong was born to Megumi Yokota and Kim Young Nam, who reportedly married her in Pyongyang after he was abducted from South Korea. He didn’t participate in the meeting in the Mongolian capital, the Yokotas said.

The couple said they have been worried about conditions in North Korea, but to their relief it appeared their granddaughter and her baby are leading a happy life in Pyongyang.

“(Kim) cooked lunch for us. It tasted very good. . . . We talked about lots of things. I’m now very happy with our decision to go” meet her, Shigeru Yokota, 81, said.

The Yokotas have long been at the head of a campaign waged by relatives of abductees to demand official action to get their loved ones returned to Japan.

Megumi Yokota was 13 when she was kidnapped to Pyongyang in 1977.

Her parents were reluctant to visit their granddaughter in North Korea, fearing Pyongyang would turn such a trip into a political show to bring the abduction issue to a close. The North claims no abductees remain alive, although relatives in Japan believe otherwise.

Pyongyang has claimed that Megumi Yokota had an unstable mental condition and killed herself in 1994. But a DNA test conducted in Japan on bone ash provided by North Korea turned out not to match hers.

Sakie Yokota said that during their stay in Ulan Bator, the couple didn’t ask about their daughter’s alleged death because they didn’t want to talk about topics “that might involve some difficult political issues,” adding they still believe their daughter is alive somewhere in North Korea.

Shigeru Yokota said that even if Kim Eun Gyong had information about Megumi, “I don’t think she was able to talk about it.”

Sakie Yokota said she and her husband decided to meet their granddaughter this time because the meeting was arranged outside of North Korea and they wished to see her while they are still in good health, given their advanced age.

The abductions are a main stumbling block keeping Tokyo and Pyongyang from starting meaningful political negotiations.

Observers say Pyongyang now might be trying to bring the issue to a close with the emotional meeting of the Yokota family and give momentum to launch bilateral talks.

The Japanese and North Korean Red Cross societies are scheduled to hold meetings in Shenyang, China, for two days from Wednesday, with government officials from both sides participating.

According to Kyodo News, Tokyo and Pyongyang might agree in Shenyang to start bureau chief-level official talks. Junichi Ihara, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, will represent Japan at the negotiations, while North Korea will be represented by Song Il Ho, ambassador for talks to normalize relations with Japan.

North Korea has faced even deeper international isolation since Kim Jong Un took the country’s supreme leadership in 2012.

Pyongyang is now apparently taking a “soft” approach to urge Tokyo to drop its economic sanctions, said Masao Okonogi, a prominent Korea expert and research professor of Korean affairs at Kyushu University.

“Domestically, reconstruction of the economy is now their top priority. What (Pyongyang) wants from Japan and South Korea now is the easing of economic sanctions,” Okonogi said.

For years, North Korea has intentionally swung between “soft” and “hard” diplomacy in dealing with Japan, he pointed out.

But the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apparently has reason to be more positive about restarting political talks with Pyongyang, Okonogi said.

Abe won great popularity with voters before his first prime ministership in 2006 and 2007 thanks to his tough stance in negotiations with Pyongyang over the abduction issue.

Since becoming prime minister again in December 2012 he has pledged to resolve the abduction issue. He may now feel that he needs to show progress over the abduction issue one year after his inauguration, he said.

“If there is no sign of progress, it would look very awkward for (Abe),” Okonogi said. Abe would have “no option but to respond” if Pyongyang makes proposals over the abduction issue.

Hajime Izumi, a Korea expert and professor at the University of Shizuoka, said that the advanced age of the Yokotas is probably the main factor that prompted both Pyongyang and Tokyo to arrange the opportunity for them meet their granddaughter.

At the same time, North Korea has recently tried to promote bilateral relations with Japan because it would help prompt Seoul to improve ties with Pyongyang as well, Izumi said.

“(The North) would get tremendous economic benefits if it succeeds in improving its relationship with the South. To help achieve that goal, the North may be approaching Japan,” he said.

In recent months, Beijing has started attaching more political importance to its relations with South Korea. This has also increased Pyongyang’s sense of isolation and might have prompted the North to restart government talks with Tokyo, Izumi added.