Japan denies report that abductee Yokota died of overdose in 1994

Bloomberg, Reuters

The central government on Friday denied a report out of South Korea claiming that Megumi Yokota, who was abducted by North Korea at the age of 13 and remains a symbol of the four-decade campaign to recover kidnapping victims, died in 1994 of an overdose.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said there was “absolutely no credibility” to a report in the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper about Megumi Yokota’s death at a North Korean psychiatric hospital 20 years ago. The paper cited a report by South Korean activist Choi Sung-yong and Japanese investigators.

“I wanted to let the world know that Megumi died a tragic death,” Choi, who represents an association of South Koreans whose family members were kidnapped by North Korea, said in a telephone interview. “It’s unacceptable how they let her die.”

Yokota is the youngest of 17 people listed by the Japanese government as being kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, while citizens’ groups have identified hundreds more who may have been abducted.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to force North Korea to reveal the fate of the victims has been a centerpiece of his political career, and the issue remains an emotional one in Japan.

“There’s much speculation about the survivors, but the government is doing its utmost on the assumption that all the abduction victims are alive,” Suga said at a news conference.

Choi said he worked with Japanese investigators on the report and its findings are in line with information that North Korea gave on Yokota in 2002.

The regime under Kim Jong Un agreed earlier this year to a new investigation into the fate of the victims, though a Japanese delegation to Pyongyang last week didn’t receive any new information on the fate of the abductees from North Korean officials investigating the issue.

The Dong-A newspaper said two North Korean staffers at the hospital gave testimony that Yokota was given sedatives and sleeping pills that exceeded a safe dose.

“At the time of the patient’s death, there were blue marks all over her body,” one of them was quoted as saying. That was an indication that poison or excessive medication was taken or injected, the person was quoted as saying.

Her body was not put in a coffin for burial but was dumped in a pit, the report said.

Choi based his findings on interviews with two officials from the hospital where she was treated. The interviews were conducted after the two defected from North Korea, he said.

In an interview in July, Yokota’s mother, Sakie, said the latest North Korean probe into the abductees and a more active Abe government on the issue offered grounds for hope. “We are all looking at this and beginning to think it may lead to some progress,” she said.

The report, if true, may be a setback for Abe, whose administration maintains that some victims are still alive. Abe managed to convince North Korea to carry out the new probe in July in return for easing some sanctions on the isolated nation.

North Korea said in 2002 it had abducted 13 Japanese to help train spies and returned five of them, saying the others, including Yokota, were dead.

Her family was unconvinced by North Korea’s assertion that she committed suicide at the age of 28 or 29, citing anomalies in the documents shown as proof of death, and a photograph provided by her daughter that an analyst said put her at about 40.

One evening in November 1977, Yokota, then 13, failed to return to her home in the port city of Niigata after badminton practice. Her mother went to the school to look for her, only to find training had ended and her daughter wasn’t around.

Police combed nearby empty lots and pine woods along the coast of the Sea of Japan, and a sniffer dog found a trail ending a few minutes from the family home.

Yokota’s parents, Sakie and Shigeru, had no success with a media appeal to publicize the case. It was 20 years before they heard via a lawmaker that their daughter had been spotted in North Korea, according to a book Sakie Yokota published in 2012.