Gone, But Not Forgotten
Shedding light on North Korea's kidnapping atrocities.
11:00 PM, Mar 11, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
TERUAKI MASUMOTO is a 48-year-old tuna department manager at the Tohto Suisan Company in Tokyo, Japan. He's soft-spoken and was a bit weary-eyed from traveling when I met him in Washington last week. For more than 20 years, Masumoto has had to live without knowing what happened to his sister the day she vanished, August 12, 1978: "I was a 22-year-old student and my sister Rumiko was 24 and working as a clerk," he tells me through a translator. "It was a holiday so I was home from school and saw my sister off--she was going out with her boyfriend Shuichi to the beach on the Fukiage Coast, known for its beautiful sunsets. And that was the last time I saw her." Masumoto knew something was wrong when she didn't come home that night. "Before that night, she never stayed out late. It was very unlike her."
The next day, Shuichi's car was found in a parking lot near the beach. It was locked and Rumiko's handbag, a wallet with money, and a camera were still inside. "Because they were dating, many people thought they had eloped. But they had been going out for only two or three months and she hadn't even met his parents. We later found one of Shuichi's sandals near the beach path and thought it could've been a crime, but police were doubtful. So we thought maybe it was an accident. It got so crazy some even thought they might have been abducted by a UFO. For those first few years, we didn't have any answers."
Then, in 1980, a Japanese reporter broke a story about people who had gone missing from the area where Rumiko and Shuichi were last seen. The disappearances all took place between July and August 1978. Around that time, witnesses saw a North Korean vessel off the coast and investigators intercepted some suspicious radio transmissions. Three days after Masumoto's sister disappeared, another couple in Takaoka City was ambushed by a group of unidentified men. The man and woman were bound, gagged, and shoved into large bags. But after a distraction forced the kidnappers into hiding, the couple managed to escape. Authorities later found handcuffs and other materials that were not manufactured in Japan.
Which is when Masumoto started believing that his sister had been abducted by North Koreans. "My family's first reaction was one of relief. At least she is alive and hopefully we can meet her. But we didn't know how we could rescue her from North Korea."
It wasn't until September 17, 2002, that Kim Jong Il, in the midst of normalization talks with Japan's prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, finally admitted that his regime had in fact kidnapped a number of Japanese (he ultimately acknowledged fifteen abductions). In many cases, the abductees were forced to serve as translators for the government. Kim apologized, said neither he nor his father had known what these renegade, kidnapping agents were doing, and promised it wouldn't happen again. Unfortunately, he also said that of the fifteen abductees, ten were dead, among them Rumiko Masumoto and her boyfriend Shuichi Ichikawa.
"I was angry. I was furious," recalls Teruaki Masumoto. "At first, they gave us no other information. But later in September, a fact-finding mission told me that according to documents, Rumiko died on August 11, 1981, only three years after being kidnapped. They said she died of heart disease. Heart disease? She was only 27."
Masumoto strongly believes that his sister is alive. A North Korean spy who defected several years ago told him he saw Rumiko between 1988 and 1990 at Kim Jong Il Political University. And the medical papers themselves are shoddy: Though Rumiko and the others died in different cities and on different dates, the format of the death certificates are the same. "Even the stamps are identical," Masumoto adds, and while he was shown a marriage certificate for his sister and Shuichi Ichikawa along with their signatures, "their dates of birth are both incorrect."
To make things more complicated, the North Koreans allowed five abductees to visit Japan last October. They have been staying with relatives ever since. But in a display of unbelievable audacity, the regime is demanding they be returned to North Korea to be with their other families, including children and one American spouse.* The Japanese government is insisting that these collateral family members be brought to Japan.
Jack Rendler, the North Korea coordinator for Amnesty International USA, says that even though the North Koreans are taking a hard line, the families will eventually be ransomed to Japan because the abductees have outlived their usefulness. "There's really no need for them anymore," he says. "The North Koreans will allow the abductees' families to go to Japan--for the right price. . . . This is the position the North Korean government puts you in, in order to extract the maximum price. To get what you want, are you willing to help this regime?"