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Filmmakers to Bring Japanese Abductee Story to Worldwide Audience

Sometimes, as is often the case with North Korea, truth is stranger than fiction.

"Many folks are aware that (North Korean President) Kim Jong-Il has caused horrific suffering on the people of North Korea, but few realize the depth of the suffering he has caused to his neighbors, the South Korean people and the people of Japan, through the abduction of their citizens," said Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides educational programs on defense, national security and human rights issues.

The issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea is well-known in Japan, but now two American filmmakers are working to bring that story to a worldwide audience. Japan has called for the issue to be placed on the agenda for the six-nation talks, which have focused on North Korea's nuclear program.

"During the Korean War, thousands of South Korean citizens were abducted, and since the war, hundreds of South Korean and Japanese citizens have been abducted, held against their will, to be used to help train North Korean spies," Ms. Scholte said.

The issue was pushed to the forefront in Japan in September 2002, when North Korean President Kim Jong-Il admitted to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that North Korean spies had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens from 1977 to 1983.

One of the Japanese abductees was Megumi Yokota, 13, who is the focus of a new documentary that is being produced by award-winning filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim.

At a recent conference in Washington on North Korea's human rights record, Ms. Kim set the scene. "Three young girls are walking home from school after badminton practice. Two of the young girls turn a corner. They say goodbye to the last girl. This third girl continues on her way, alone in the dark. And 13-year-old Megumi Yokota appears to vanish without a trace. Her mom would spend the better part of that night clutching her two little young boys and a single flashlight, running through the dark forests along the seashore, calling out her daughter's name, Megumi-chan, Megumi-chan. But there was no answer," she said.

Filmmaker Sheridan picks up the story. "The next morning, Megumi was not home. A day goes by, a week, a month, a year, five years, 20 years go by, and Megumi Yokota does not come home. Then, in 2002, North Korea makes a shocking and stunning announcement to the world. They announce that their secret agents abducted Japanese citizens from Japan, took them to North Korea and forced them to train their spies in Japanese language and culture," he said.

Mr. Sheridan says Japanese media have done a good job telling this story inside their own country. He says the film, "Abduction: the Megumi Yokota Story," aims at bringing the issue to the rest of the world.

"But to be honest, many people outside of Japan do not know it, especially here, in America. Imagine, for one second, if 9/11 happened and nobody outside of the United States reported it. That's how Japanese people feel about this story."

After much pressure from the Japanese side, North Korea allowed five of the 13 confirmed abductees to return to Japan. Pyongyang said the other eight, including Megumi Yokota, had died. Later, when North Korea sent what it said were the remains of some of the victims, Japanese scientists proved they were not.

This has given hope to people like Teruaki Masumoto, the secretary general of the Association of Kidnapped Japanese Families by North Korea, who believes that his abducted sister is still alive. "We believe that most of the victims are alive and are waiting for their rescue."

Although the kidnappings have become an urgent emotional and political matter for Japan, they have been overshadowed by international concerns about North Korea's nuclear program. The nuclear issue is the focus of the six-party talks made up of the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. But during a visit to Tokyo earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters she supports having the talks cover the abductees and other concerns, as well.

"The nuclear issue is the one that is pressing us as we return to the talks. But we have always supported Japan's desire to get this (abductee issue) resolved and made clear that we believe that the future of the relationship with North Korea has got to resolve a variety of issues," she said.

Meanwhile, American filmmakers Mr. Sheridan and Ms. Kim plan to complete their documentary about the Japanese abductees in time for the next Sundance Film Festival, in January 2006.