Shigeru Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was abducted to North Korea in 1977 and who played a central role in Japan's efforts to pressure Pyongyang to release more victims, has died, sources close to his family said Friday. He was 87.
Yokota, who worked with other victims' relatives to prod the government into rescuing their children and siblings, whom they believe are still alive, died without ever seeing Megumi again. She was kidnapped on her way home from school at the age of 13.
At the time, the family was living in Niigata Prefecture after Yokota, then employed by the Bank of Japan, was transferred to a branch of the central bank on the Sea of Japan coast.
Yokota and his wife, Sakie, along with seven other families of Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents, formed a group in March 1997 that has worked tirelessly to raise public awareness of the abduction issue.
They are hoping the abductees will be released even as relations between Japan and North Korea worsen due to Pyongyang's nuclear weapon and missile programs.
Yokota served as the group's chief for more than 10 years until November 2007, when he resigned due to health reasons.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been seeking to hold a face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “without preconditions” to break the deadlock.
As Japan seeks cooperation from the United States to resolve the issue, U.S. President Donald Trump made a reference to Megumi in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017, saying, "We know it (North Korea) kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea's spies."
Japan officially lists 17 people as abductees but suspects North Korea was involved in more disappearances. While five of the 17 were repatriated in 2002, Pyongyang maintains that eight, including Megumi, have died and the other four never entered the country.
The North initially said Megumi killed herself while being treated for depression in 1993, but later changed the year of her death to 1994.
Japan rejects the claim that she died, in part because the cremated remains that Pyongyang handed over as hers turned out to be false after DNA tests were conducted in Japan.
North Korea says Megumi married Kim Young Nam, a South Korean who is believed to have been abducted as a teenager, in the North in 1986 and had a daughter with him the following year.
The Yokotas were allowed by Pyongyang to secretly meet with their granddaughter Kim Eun Gyong in the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar in March 2014.