The Japan-North Korea Abduction Cases
Interview with director Melissa K. Lee
In 2002, Prime Minister Koizumi went to Pyongyang to hear a startling admission: that North Korea had abducted thirteen Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Five abductees were still living; eight were declared dead.
(See inset below for further details.)

Kidnapped!, a documentary film by Australian director/producer Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee and producer John Janson-Moore, portrays the extraordinary heart-wrenching journeys of three families of the abduction victims, who are now unwittingly caught up in the middle of a political storm. In 2005 Kidnapped! received a grant under the Japan Foundation Film and TV Program Support Program and was selected for the prestigious Silver Wolf competition at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

Editor Catherine Maxwell spoke to Melissa K. Lee about this fascinating and moving film.

In your statement about the film, you mentioned that your own family history drew your attention to this story. Could you elaborate a little more on this history?

I think my family background is only one of the reasons why I wanted to do this story. During the Korean War, the North Korean side used to kidnap civilians and use them as human couriers to transport their artillery to secret locations and then kill them. My grandfather happened to be one of the unlucky civilians who was captured in the winter of 1951. A couple of days later he was lined up to be shot, but he just collapsed because he was so frightened, and the other men fell on top of him and he didn’t breath and didn’t move and somehow lived to tell the tale.

But if I hadn’t been Korean and that hadn’t happened to my grandfather, I think I still would have made this film. What really drew me to this story is that the families are not unlike my parents. The Arimotos for example, they’re about the same age and they didn’t really want their daughter Keiko to go overseas because they were concerned [for her safety]. That’s exactly what my parents were like! They would say what I thought were ridiculous things, like you might get kidnapped, or robbed, or killed if you go overseas and I used to think they’re very paranoid… I was really emotionally drawn to the family stories, because they’re just ordinary people who’ve been drawn together by these extraordinary circumstances.

When you first had the idea to make this documentary, it was before North Korea admitted to the abductions in 2002. How did this and subsequent events affect your concept for the film?

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang 2002.
I think one of the biggest challenges with this project is that there are many families, and it’s a complex issue which is constantly evolving and developing, so you’re trying to keep up with what’s happening, but at the same time you’ve only got an hour to make the film. And it’s a documentary, so you’re not necessarily wanting to report on what’s just happened, you’re trying to tell a narrative.

From the time I first began researching the story, I had no idea how fascinating it was. Even the little clues that begin to emerge, they’re significant but they’re just little fragments, we still don’t really know the truth. The whole thing is a mystery, so we tried not to make the film say this is what happened, and have a clean ending.

Why did you pick the particular families focussed on in the film?

I met most of the families of the thirteen confirmed abduction victims, but I think it was really those three families – the Arimotos, Chimuras and Yokotas – who I felt most emotionally connected to and passionate about their stories. What I found interesting is that the families are similar in that they’re all ordinary people, but then they’re also a little bit different. Mr Chimura lives in the countryside, and the Yokotas are perhaps a little bit more middle class, and the Arimotos are working class, but all with the same ideals of bringing up a happy family.

I thought it was interesting how these individual families from all different parts of Japan were brought together by these extraordinary circumstances. And after Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to North Korea [in 2002] and with the subsequent events, their journeys end up in different places. So I wanted to explore that in the film.

Megumi Yokota’s parents campaign to raise awareness and pressure the government on the abduction issue

The families seem to have really supported each other a lot, especially since they formed the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea. Is that something you found?

Yes, for a couple of decades they were all struggling on their own, and for a long time they didn’t realise there were all these other families going through the same thing. I think when they all finally met, they felt very close to one another because of their shared experience.

Apparently the Arimotos tried to form a families association back [in the early 1990s], but no one wanted to form one at that point, because they were worried about going public. But by the late 1990s, they really didn’t have many other options, it was either be silent, or speak up and hope that something good will come of it.

How did the families feel about sharing their stories?

By the time I got to film them, they were very media-savvy. They’re highly experienced media personalities. And I think that all the families were very keen for this story to be told to a non-Japanese audience, because it’s a huge issue in Japan but they want the world to know about it. Mostly they were very forthcoming and welcoming, in a very formal Japanese way!

It was actually really difficult to book in time with the families because they’re all so busy. We were at the Yokota’s place one day, and the phone continuously rings, faxes are continuously coming in, their dining room table is piled with newspaper clippings. They work full time on this issue. And of course we weren’t the only ones who wanted to interview them.

Tell me more about how the families have gone in different directions, especially after the 2002 announcement...

Japanese abductee Yasushi Chimura is reunited with his father in October 2002
In the events leading up to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to North Korea in 2002, I think all the families were fighting with the belief that their children were still alive in North Korea. I don’t think anyone really anticipated the news [that eight abductees had died]. So once the September 17 summit occurred, the families were still united as an association, but their priorities were different. For the families whose children were alive, their priority was to get their children back to Japan, and once they returned to Japan, to get their grandchildren back. And for the families whose children were allegedly dead, their priority was to find out more information. They eventually came to the conclusion, due to lack of information or suspicious information, that their children may still be alive.

The other thing that was interesting was the way that this issue had come to be very political and is used by some political activists to call for Japan’s remilitarisation and so on. Was this perspective something you originally set out to include?

I wanted to make a film about these ordinary families in this really extraordinary situation. I didn’t set out to make a film about North East Asian politics. But I think the contextualisation of the story politically and historically is important to make it something that Western audiences can relate to and understand. It’s very difficult to make a film about this story without somehow exploring the broader picture and what it means for relations between Japan and North Korea.

Was there a sense that the families had been caught up, perhaps reluctantly, in a wider political agenda?

For years the families were ignored by the media, by the politicians, by the government, because their claims just seemed too bizarre, that their children have been abducted by North Korean spies. But it turned out to be true. So I think the relationship between the political agitators and the families has been a very important one, because without them, the families might still be struggling on their own.

What do you see as the main message you hope audiences will receive from this film?

I’m always drawn to stories about the underdog. I think that in all these big geopolitical events it’s the little people that get forgotten, but I think in this story there’s a twist. The abductees families have got a lot of influence in Japan and so they’ve gone from ordinary people suffering on their own to these big media personalities with a bit of political pull.

To sum it up in a line, I think the main message is ordinary people caught up in this amazing, extraordinary circumstance and how people cope with that.

This is definitely one of those ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ kind of stories. But I hope it’s an interesting and coherent story that people can follow. And people will definitely be left with more questions.

1970s - 1980s   Numerous Japanese citizens go missing, particularly from coastal areas on the Sea of Japan, and from overseas.
1988   Former North Korean spy admits to having been taught Japanese by a woman abducted from Japan. Other evidence also begins to emerge.
1990s   Normalisation talks between Japan and North Korea begin. Abduction issue is raised by Japan but denied by North Korea.
1997   Former North Korean spy Ahn Myung Jin claims to have met at least 10 Japanese abductees in Pyongyang, in particular Megumi Yokota.Families of suspected North Korean abduction victims mobilise to garner support and pressure the government.
March 2002   Megumi Yao confesses to kidnapping Keiko Arimoto from London.
17 September 2002   Prime Minister Koizumi makes his first visit to Pyongyang. Returns with the shocking admission from North Korea that thirteen Japanese citizens had been abducted, of whom only five were still living.
15 October 2002   Five surviving abductees arrive in Japan for a two-week visit. Japan refuses to let them return to North Korea and demands that North Korea hand over their children.
May 2004   Koizumi goes to North Korea for the second time. He returns with the children of two returned abductee couples and North Korea’s promise to ‘reinvestigate’ the cases of the eight abductees allegedly deceased.
October 2004   The results of the reinvestigation produces, among other things, the ashes of Megumi Yokota. Upon Japanese forensic examination, the ashes are determined not to be Megumi’s. Negotiations stall.
Abduction victims
(included in the documentary)
Megumi Yokota, abducted in 1977 aged 13, whilst walking home from school in Niigata.
Yasushi Chimura, 23, and his fiancée, Fukie Hamamoto, 23, disappeared from a coastal park in Obama (Fukui Prefecture) in 1978. The couple returned to Japan in October 2002 and were joined by their North Korean born children in May 2004.
Keiko Arimoto, 23, was studying in London when she was offered a fictitious job by a fellow student (Megumi Yao) and failed to return home in 1983.
Kidnapped! will be screened on SBS television. The Japan Foundation, Sydney is also planning to hold a screening in Sydney. Please check our website or contact us for further information.

Kidnapped! (2005)
Director/Producer - Melissa Kyu-Jung Lee
Producer - John Janson-Moore

Funded by the Australian Film Commission and the New South Wales Film & Television Office, with a pre-sale with SBS Independent and support from the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Fund and the Japan Foundation. Distributed by Films Transit International.

*Click photo to enlarge
Privacy & Copyright © The Japan Foundation, Sydney 2006