Friday, July 07, 2006


Megumi is Japanese, young, not more than ten. She has finished school. She has finished her badminton practice. She is heading home. She waves good-bye to her friends, and then turns towards the short path that leads towards her family's house, not more than five or ten minutes away on foot.

But she never gets there.

Instead, she is kidnapped by North Korean spies, who bring her to their homeland, where she lives, grows up, and eventually marries a South Korean man who had also been kidnapped. They have a daughter, who is now almost a teen. The North Korean government says that Megumi is now dead; her husband, a man of fifty (or near enough), already remarried, recently was reunited with his South Korean mother.

An astounding story, one that has hardly been reported in the western media, but it's stories like this one, profoundly human stories, that make the situation with North Korea so real and heartbreaking and vital. Stories that make fiction seem not only improbable, but almost unnecessary.

Dozens, if not hundreds of people were kidnapped byNorth Korea: Japanese, South Koreans, Thais, you name it. A few years back a few of those Japanese were sent back home -- after almost thirty years. The government states that Megumi is now dead, but how are we to know? Who can trust anything that they say?

I've seen Megumi's parents in person, at a symposium on North Korea that was held in downtown Tokyo over three years ago, just before I left Japan for Cambodia. There were American academics, Japanese scholars, and the moderator, Shinzo Abe, is currently in the running to replace Junichiro Koizumi when he steps down as the Japanese prime minister later this year. It was a grave discussion, a serious discussion, and Megumi's parents, elderly now, almost frail, watched in the audience, accepted condolences, kept a tight, rigid smile on their faces. The kind that the Japanese have patented.

A whole country, cut-off and isolated. What is it: forty, fifty million people? Absolutely brainwashed. Severed from the modern world. Noone gets in, and noone gets out. (Unless you try and escape, which thousands have done, but if you're cut, the chances are good that you will be killed or else imprisoned for life for disobeying the Dear Leader's insane dictates.)

Ever since that symposium, and the endless media coverage in Japan that heralded the return of the Japanese abductees from North Korea, I've been fascinated by that 'hermit kingdom', as it's affectionately dubbed. I want to go there. As a Canadian, I can go there. (Sorry -- no Americans allowed. See for more info.) One week tours are available; one of my students in Japan, an elderly lady who'd also bopped around Iran, went there. She had to empty her entire suitcase at the airport, piece by piece, and while on a tour of Kim Jong Ill's endless statues a tour guide, middle aged, cautiously asked her, in soft tones, if she would be able to send him a copy of a record recorded by a popular Japanese singing sensation. Popular, that is, in the 1950's.

The man who brought me to Japan, American Bernie Krisher, based in Tokyo, publisher of The Cambodia Daily, has been to North Korea on more than one occasion, helping deliver rice. He even had a heart attack there, for God's sake, and spent a week in a Pyongyang hosptial, with IV's made from empty beer bottles. His verdict: "The North Korean people know more than we think they do. They're very smart." Or words to that effect.

One of my students in Cambodia was a North Korean whose father worked for the North Korean embassy (which was directly across the street from my apartment on Sihanouk), and operated the North Korean restaurant in town, complete with zombie-like, grinning, robotic waitresses who serve you food and then perform traditional North Korean music and dance. I would see my student reading biographies of Kim Sung Ill, and on more than one occasion he let me know that his homeland isn't as bad as everyone says it as, and that the people who leave, the people who try to escape, are all criminals. One of his reports confided that, when he was a child, his mother used to tell him that those who did not love their homeland were little more than sperm in the street. Ah, childhood.

Now that North Korea has launched a series of tests, who knows what they're up to? I suspect they don't know, either; they're waiting to see what the rest of the world does, waiting to see how they react. North Korea is like a man in a room with a loaded gun, who may or may not be crazy. How do you negotiate with someone like that, without getting him, you and everybody else killed, or at least wounded?

I don't know.

But it's Megumi I keep thinking about. A little kid with a badminton racquet. Who would be kidnapped to North Korea, undoubtedly brainwashed. Who would give birth to daughter, whose DNA has been proven to be that of Megumi's. Who who will be photographed, smiling, seemingly happy, at the age of thirty, perhaps thirty-five.

What happened to her in the intervening years? Was Japan a distant, dream-like mirage? What kind of world do we live in, where people can be snatched up out of their lives and into ulterior dimensions? The heartbreak of the story; the absurdity of it; the little girl that was born because of it. She wouldn't exist if her mother had not been kidnapped.

All of it, I think about.

The politicians and the pundits argue about first-strikes and last-strikes, and chemical weapons and nuclear bombs, but I often find myself thinking about Megumi, and the North Koreans, held against their will, collectively, that she must have met there, and grown up with, and shared laughs with.

At the base of every political dilemma are the people. The ones who laugh and smoke and drink and smile and bleed. The ones who simply want to live their lives, raise their children, drink some beer and watch the sun slowly set. The ones who flick off the light and wonder what tomorrow will bring. Sunshine or rain or something in between.


Anonymous said...

Great writing, as always!

cheers from Brazil,


roselle said...

i remember reading, a long time ago, about two sisters who at the age of 93 were reunited after some forty odd years of separation - one in north and the other in south korea...
i always wondered how many other untold stories were out there - how many mothers never saw their children post-segregation, how many wives and husbands had their marriages torn apart by powers that take into consideration last those whom their decisions affect most...