In 1977, a number of disappearances were recorded along the Japanese coast, including that of a 13-year-old girl, Megumi Yokota. The families of those who vanished had no idea what had happened to their loved ones, nor that their disappearances were connected, until nearly two decades later, when Kim Jong Il shocked the world by admitting that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens, and forced them to live in North Korea, to learn Japanese language and culture from them. The extraordinary, fascinating details of this period in Cold War history are told through the experiences of Yokota’s parents, in Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim’s remarkable documentary: “Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story,” available this month on Cinema Asian American through Xfinity On-Demand. To this day, the Yokotas have been searching for their daughter, in a strange, painful journey that gives emotional testament to the unbreakable bonds of love.
While many films have been made about North Korea, most have focused on the internal politics and culture of the country, while little attention has been paid to its relations with the outside world. What drew you to this aspect of North Korean-Japanese-Cold War history?
CH & PK: It wasn’t so much the international relations element but rather the story of the family at the center of it. The very universal, human story of an ordinary banker and his housewife thrust into this complicated web of espionage and deceit was just so shocking and tragic and unbelievable all at the same time. We first read about it in 2002 in a newspaper article and although the story of Megumi Yokota was buried inside the news of the first meeting ever between the North Korean and Japanese leaders, her story was far more fascinating and shocking. A 13-year-old girl kidnapped from her home by these North Korean secret agents — doesn’t get much more intriguing than that. It’s one of those things in life where you can’t believe what you’re reading. And then to learn about how her family had wondered where she was for 20 years and, upon learning of her fate, was now on a campaign to get their own government to do something about it, that made the story that much richer, more compelling. Of course, the fact it was North Korea made it much more interesting than say, South Korea, or Canada. When Kim Jong Il admitted his spies took 13 Japanese people, including Megumi, it displayed a side of them that had only been speculated about and certainly exposed one of the more bizarre aspects of their thinking when it comes to international relations. We admit to being completely fascinated by that and wanted to know much more. We’re still asking and wondering all these years later.
In addition to being filmmakers, the two of you are veteran news journalists. Can you talk about the research process of making “Abduction”? How did you identify your subjects, sources and visual materials? Where was most of your research conducted?
CH & PK: That’s a good question because, as I mentioned, back in 2002 when this first broke internationally, there was almost nothing written about or talked about in English or the Western world on this subject. The initial story of all the abductees was the headline when Kim Jong Il admitted his spies had taken them. But, there was one mention of a 13-year-old girl who was one of the victims. That completely shocked us. We googled “Megumi Yokota” and I remember there was very little. Now, if you google her, you’ll get hundreds of hits. YouTube obviously has been a big help but it wasn’t around when we were doing the first stages of research. We made a phone call to a Japanese translator we’d used on another story for National Geographic. He contacted Megumi’s family who agreed to meet and talk to us. That’s where pretty much everything came from initially as well as Japanese newspaper sources (which had to be translated). Also, early on, we got a hold of an English manuscript of a book Megumi’s mother wrote which wasn’t published until years later (after our film came out). That had a lot of detail in it that allowed us to fill in the blanks and conduct more effective interviews.
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This is a story which has not ended and continues to grow and reveal itself; with the passing of Kim Jong Il, do you anticipate other hidden parts of North Korea’s recent history to come to light?
CH & PK: Oh, absolutely. You have to understand, this is a country that is about as far removed from the rest of the world as the moon is. In fact, when the five abductees were returned to Japan in 2002 one of them picked up a remote control and put it to his ear, thinking it was one of these “mobile phones” he’d only heard about but never used before. When we’re talking about that level of disconnection from some of the most basic, modern comforts in life it’s not a stretch to assume that so much is hidden from them and from us. People who escape from North Korea are constantly reinforcing this. Let’s not forget that North Korea denied they ever took anyone for 20 years before they were finally forced to admit it. And it was only out of necessity because there were severe food shortages and the government needed Japan’s help. Let’s just take the simple fact that no one really knows the new leader’s actual age as more proof that so little is known about this strange place.
What are you working on now?
CH & PK: We have a few things going on at once. A documentary film that we are consulting producers on called “Give Up Tomorrow” is doing very well with audiences and travelling the world to very favorable reviews. We made our first narrative short a year and a half ago so we’re trying to get into narrative film now as well.