No other country inspires the same morbid fascination as North Korea. Here is an utter basket case of a nation, a totalitarian state with absolutely zero personal, political and economic freedom. Its only hope for future growth lies in what few economic ties it can build with China and its southern cousin. Few people enter the country at all, and those who do are presented with a façade as elaborately choreographed and stage-managed as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Its general populace dares not speak to outsiders of its true sufferings for fear of reprisal. Some within its walls are not deluded by the official stories of the “imperialist warmongers” and bribe their way out to a better life. A very few enter the country of their own accord and are never seen again.
Even fewer still are brought there by force, and meet a similar fate. Decades ago North Korean agents kidnapped a thirteen-year-old girl out of her hometown in Japan, hid her from the world (and her parents) for decades on end, and only admitted to having done so after great pressure was brought to bear by both international leaders and other aggrieved relatives daring enough to be outspoken about their missing loved ones. The whole thing had the aura of a beach-read paperback thriller, not the true workings of international espionage. But it was true, and the fact it took as long as it did for the truth to come out bespoke of terrible cowardice on both sides. Bad enough that the “Democratic People’s Republic” kidnapped people for its intelligence efforts, but even worse that those who had children and siblings go missing were not helped by their own society.
Why did North Korea do all this, anyway? The official line, from both sides, is that they were abducting people whose identities could be stolen, or who could be used as “cultural resources” — i.e., people they could ply to tell them about how the outside world worked, so they could better educate their spies. It scarcely mattered if their victims were thirteen, thirty or seventy-three: if they knew something, anything about the countries they needed to gather intelligence from, they were an asset. Few people outside North Korea need to be convinced that the country is in the grip of pathological, paranoid and desperate men, but too much of the time talk of that sort of thing revolves around North Korea’s rattling of its nuclear saber and not in terms of real people starving and fleeing and being shot.
The best reason to read Daughter, then, is because it deals with a specific person — or, rather, two specific people. The first is Megumi Yokota, thirteen years old in 1977, the year she vanished on the way home from school. The second is her mother, Sakie Yokota, as close to her daughter as any mother could hope to be. Mrs. Yokota’s plain-spoken memoir talks not only about the abduction and the difficulty she faced trying to get people in power to hear her grievances, but about Megumi as a person (albeit as seen largely through the filter of her mother’s memory) and Mrs. Yokota’s personal determination to abide and endure. It uses quiet, unadorned, sometimes even wholly artless language to talk about things that no person should ever have to put into words in the first place.
The book begins with Megumi’s kidnapping, so everything else that happens is colored by this incident — much as it has been in Mrs. Yokota’s own life. Mrs. Yokota takes the entire second chapter of the book to talk exclusively about Megumi before the abduction, and she gives us a portrait of a girl we’d be happy to invite over to play with our kids. And then she vanishes, and at first everyone’s suspicions turn towards the most obvious and plausible scenarios: she was kidnapped by a third party; she ran away from home; she killed herself. Only the first of these possibilities seemed remotely likely, since anyone who knew the Yokotas could testify that the other two were downright implausible.
It’s never any great mystery in the book about what happened to Megumi; just look at the title. What matters above and beyond that is how Mrs. Yokota found out about it, to what end, and what she had to go through to get there. A fake kidnapper (a high school student with problems of his own) phoned the family and gave them a sliver of false hope. A beauty contest winner who looked astonishingly like Megumi turned out to be another dead end. And then the strangest of possibilities began to surface when reports circulated of kidnappings elsewhere in Japan that were suspected to be the work of “foreign governments”, possibly to obtain their Japanese domicile registries and use them to forge local proof of residence for spies.
On the surface of it, there’s an easy enough explanation for why Megumi remains a non-person in diplomatic limbo. Relationships between Japan and the Koreas have always been touch-and-go, and the last thing anyone wanted (especially in light of North Korea’s growing nuclear ambitions) was to give the country an excuse to do something rash by accusing them of something that monumental. But then you read Mrs. Yokota’s plaintive words, and you say: What’s all this talk good for if it can’t even bring a mother and her daughter back together? Why did it all fall to her to do the right thing, and goad the powers that be into taking this seriously?
What struck me again and again was how Mrs. Yokota found herself most at odds not with North Korea but Japan itself. When she and her husband stumbled across what sounded like definitive evidence that their daughter was alive in North Korea (a second-hand report in the news delivered by a former DPRK spy), they debated whether or not to allow their real names to be used in the media — not just out of fear of reprisal by North Korea, but apparently also out of what can only be described as a larger tendency to not rock any boat currently being sailed in. This same tendency could also be found amongst the diplomats and governmental figures they pleaded with, all of whom answered in vagaries and looked as busy as possible while in fact doing very little. One scene plays like a real-life redux of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, where Mrs. Yokota is shuttled in a circular fashion between one well-meaning but befuddled government functionary after another.
The official total of the number of people believed to have been kidnapped out of Japan by North Korea stands at nine, and what seemed most frightening was how they were all living totally unexceptional lives until they simply disappeared. Without accidents, without suicide notes, without anything resembling a sign of human impulse. A Chinese-restaurant chef; a girl attending school abroad; a soon-to-be married couple; a cosmetics-company employee; a thirteen-year-old girl. The Japanese have a word for that kind of vanishing: kamikakushi, “to be spirited away.” There but for the grace of God go we. And maybe but for the grace of Mrs. Yokota, too.