NIIGATA, Japan ― Megumi Yokota was just 13 when she disappeared. On her way home from badminton practice at her junior high school, she vanished somewhere along the eight-minute walk to her house in this seaside town. It was just after sunset on Nov. 15, 1977, and the weather records from that day show a calm sea and clear sky.
Megumi’s mother frantically searched the quiet residential streets with Megumi’s twin nine-year-old brothers. A massive police hunt involving a helicopter and search dogs turned up nothing. The canines lost Megumi’s trail just a few dozen yards from her house.
Snatched by special forces, Megumi was already on a boat to North Korea.
During the 1970s and 80s, North Korea kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens. They were taken from all over Japan, and sometimes even while abroad in Europe. Most were in their twenties, and some were couples, but otherwise, they fit no single profile.
Only a little information about their fate has trickled out from the secretive North Korean regime. The full explanation of why they were taken remains a mystery.
The unexplained state-sponsored crime has shaped Japanese politics, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe using the abductions to capitalize on anti-North Korean sentiment and advance his political career. Today, Megumi’s image is plastered on posters as the face of the issue, and her story has become a potent source of nationalism, frequently told in government-produced anime films and comic books.
Megumi’s mother, Sakie Yokota, now 82, hopes the recent meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un signals an opening that will allow her to see her daughter again before she dies.
“It’s a race against time,” she says.
At her apartment building in northern Tokyo, Yokota has a binder of photographs containing a picture of Megumi at 13, standing in her school uniform, unchanged by the passage of four decades.
“That was the last photo we took of her,” she says. Over the years, she has met with three American presidents to ask for help. In November, she met with Melania and Donald Trump in Tokyo. She showed Trump a photo of Megumi and her family, which she said he looked on frowning.
“This is unacceptable and this must not be forgiven,” Yokota says Trump told her.
Yokota says she spent the years after Megumi’s disappearance near delusional with grief. She scoured newspapers for sightings of Megumi. Sometimes, she ran up to girls she saw on the street, thinking they were her. In the evenings, she and her husband Shigeru took walks along the rocky beach, looking for the remains of their daughter.
“I wanted to die every day,” Yokota says. “In order to forget my sadness.”
It took 20 years before they learned what had happened to Megumi.
In 1997, a North Korean defector revealed to South Korean intelligence officials that, as part of a secret abduction program, North Korean operatives had taken a young girl who matched Megumi’s description from Niigata 20 years earlier. The information leaked to Japan’s media, and South Korean intelligence shared the story with Japanese officials.
North Korea was ultimately pressed to officially admit in 2002 that it had kidnapped people from Japan and several other countries.
When Yokota found out North Korea was behind her daughter’s kidnapping, she felt an instant wave of joy. The absurdity and tragedy were immediately outweighed by the revelation that Megumi was possibly still out there somewhere, even if she was stuck in a totalitarian country.
North Korea has never given a complete account of the abductions or their purpose, which were conducted while Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung ruled the country and his father Kim Jong Il oversaw its spy agency. Some abductees were used as language tutors for North Korean spies, while experts speculate others were possibly taken as bargaining chips for future negotiations with Japan before North Korea had a nuclear program it could use to barter.
In 2002, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea to strike a deal on the abductees in exchange for the promise of normalizing relations between the two countries. When Koizumi arrived, however, North Korean officials surprised him with a grim assessment ― eight of the abductees were dead, including Megumi.
But their explanations for how each abductee died were vague or unlikely. One person allegedly died in swimming accident, another in a car crash. Pyongyang denied some people were in North Korea at all. Megumi, officials claimed, killed herself in 1994 while being treated for depression in a hospital ward.
A month after Koizumi and Kim’s summit, North Korea allowed five of the abductees to visit Japan. They never returned to North Korea, and later described years of indoctrination and life under the close watch of government minders in small, closed-off communities known as “invitation-only zones.” Some of them said they had met Megumi, who had married a South Korean abductee and had a daughter.
Yokota and the other families couldn’t accept North Korea’s account that their relatives were dead, and neither did the Japanese government. There was widespread public outrage, and the Japanese media kept the story perpetually in the news cycle. The issue stirred long-repressed feelings of nationalism, militarism and victimhood in Japan.
“For the first time since World War II, Japan was the victim,” said Dr. Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor of Korean studies at Nanzan University.
Before becoming prime minister, Shinzo Abe was the lead negotiator for the abduction issue. His hawkish stance on North Korea and emphasis on the abductions helped him win leadership of the country in 2006, and once in office, he immediately set up a highly visible Cabinet ministry to deal with the issue. The government keeps in close touch with the families, and Abe met with them repeatedly this year.
Abe had found a rare political issue with both enormous popular appeal and bipartisan support that he could claim total ownership over. If any critics felt that Abe was exploiting the issue to boost his own popularity or stir up nationalist support, they could hardly say so without appearing to insult the families and abductees.
The abduction issue was once an easy win for Abe, but now it comes with risks. While North Korea increases diplomatic ties with foreign powers, Japan has been noticeably absent from the negotiating table, as it views resolving the kidnappings as a precondition to lifting sanctions or fully normalizing relations.
Abe now plans to meet with Kim, potentially later this year, but if the prime minister doesn’t produce any meaningful progress on the abductions after years of rhetoric, it could cause a wave of political backlash against his already scandal-stricken administration.
The Japanese government has reason to be wary about trusting North Korea to act in good faith on the issue of abductions. In 2004, North Korea sent over what it said were Megumi’s cremated remains, but Japan’s government says DNA testing revealed that they didn’t match.
Yokota insists she never believed the remains were her daughter’s and remains deeply skeptical of North Korea’s diplomatic efforts. Even when she met her granddaughter and son-in-law during a carefully negotiated trip to Mongolia in 2014, she refused to believe Megumi’s husband when he told her Megumi had died, assuming he had to stick to North Korea’s narrative.
The Japanese government demands a full account of how many abductions took place, the arrest of the perpetrators and the immediate return of the surviving abductees. But even if North Korea offers verification that the abductees have indeed died, it could hurt a Japanese government that has consistently implied that some of the abductees are alive and that there could be hundreds more not officially recognized.
The families would also be devastated or may not accept the proof. This dynamic has created a cycle in which North Korea repeatedly claims the abductees are dead and Japan continually refuses to accept that conclusion.
As the families age, there’s added pressure on the government to break this repetitive back-and-forth. Some relatives have died waiting to know what happened to their abducted kin. Shigeru Yokota is currently hospitalized and in poor health, while the Yokotas’ twin sons, Takuya and Tetsuya, have begun taking on some of the advocacy work from their parents.
The head of the Association of Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea, 79-year-old Shigeo Iizuka, worries that this latest round of negotiations is a final opportunity. In 1978, North Korean agents kidnapped his 22-year-old sister, Yaeko Taguchi, and left him to raise her 1-year-old son.
“Time is running out,” Iizuka said, sitting in front of a spread of photos that show him meeting a succession of U.S. presidents and top diplomats.
Iizuka pictures a day when his sister walks down the stairs of a plane, as the five other abductees did in 2002, and hugs her son. It doesn’t matter that Taguchi has spent almost her entire adult life in North Korea ― Iizuka talks about his sister as she was before the abduction, rather than who she might have become.
When Sakie Yokota talks about Megumi, she is also rooted firmly in the past, and she sometimes turns to the blue binder of photos resting in front of her, flipping through them. A baby photo of Megumi reminds her of how happy she and her husband were when their daughter raised her head for the first time. A picture of Megumi in tiny new shoes makes her think of how soft the touch of the leather was when she bought them.
“When I look at these pictures, I can remember even the scent in the atmosphere,” Yokota says.
For years after Megumi disappeared, Yokota would try to envision what her daughter might look like as she got older, watching classmates as they grew up to help her imagine it. But Megumi would be 53 years old now, and Sakie finds it harder to picture.
“She may be thin, but still, she would be healthy, I think. I can’t really picture what she would be like now,” Yokota says. “I don’t really want to picture anything unfortunate, so I always try to be hopeful.”
A fellowship from The Foreign Press Center Japan, a nonprofit journalism foundation, provided funding for travel and other expenses during the reporting of this article. HuffPost’s reporting is editorially independent, and Foreign Press Center Japan has had no input or review of this article.
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.