Former North Korean abductee who made it home talks to NHK

Soga Hitomi, who was abducted by North Korean agents as a teenager 46 years ago but returned to Japan in 2002, met with NHK for her first-ever solo TV interview. She talked about her life in North Korea and her mother, who was abducted with her but has never been seen again.

Soga was returning from a shopping trip in the city of Sado, Niigata Prefecture, when she and her mother Miyoshi were abducted by North Korean agents. It was the summer of 1978, and she was 19.

Soga Hitomi and Miyoshi went missing on the evening of August 12, 1978 after shopping at this store.

Suddenly three men rushed at them, covered their mouths and tied their hands and feet together. Then they were carried to a river and loaded onto a boat.

A Japanese girl awaits

When she arrived in North Korea, her mother was not with them. Her kidnappers told her that her mother was living happily in Japan.

Frightened and nervous, Soga was taken to a place near Pyongyang where another Japanese girl awaited. It was Yokota Megumi, who had been abducted at 13 a year earlier.

Yokota Megumi was abducted by North Korea from Niigata Prefecture on November 15, 1977.

Soga's knees were scratched, and Yokota asked what had happened.

"I was with my mother but haven't been able to meet her," Soga told Yokota, who replied by recounting her own abduction.

"I was ambushed at the corner of the road near my house on my way home from school club activities," Yokota said.

The subject was so painful they never spoke of it again.

Together, but always watched

Soga and Yokota lived together in relocation centers on and off, she said. A female agent who had taken part in Soga's abduction kept the two under strict surveillance.

Both still in their teens, the two girls talked together in quiet voices after their minder fell asleep at night.

Yokota was a patient listener, and even though she was younger, her presence was very steadying. It was almost like an elder sister depending on a younger one. Soga says she will never forget her.

The two were taught the Korean language and North Korean ideology for nearly two years, living together off and on while being moved from place to place.

Separation and a gift

This ended in May 1980, when Hitomi was forced by the North Korean authorities to marry Charles Jenkins, a US defector to North Korea.

Yokota gave Soga a present before they parted. It was a red sport bag from her parents when she was still in Japan.

"Please take this bag with you, think of it as me," Yokota told Soga.

A gift from Yokota Megumi to Soga Hitomi on their separation was a red bag that Megumi got from her parents.

Soga always carried it with her when she was shopping, hoping Yokota would be able to spot it.

She did see Yokota once. But approaching her was impossible, because security officials were watching.

Watch video 0:24
Soga Hitomi talks about Yokota Megumi.

"Unforgivable, cruel" incident

Everyone is aging, whether the abductees in North Korea or their family members back home, Soga says.

Time is running out.

Her mother, Miyoshi, whose whereabouts remain unknown, is turning 93 this year. Soga says she believes Miyoshi is doing well, but is haunted by worry.

The two of them did nothing wrong, Soga adds. The abduction was unforgivable and cruel, and it destroyed their lives completely.

In October 2002, Soga at last returned to Japan with 4 other abductees.

She clearly remembers slowly descending from the airplane, hoping her mother was watching her from some concealed place - perhaps a corner of the airport.

But she wasn't there.

Soga Hitomi returned to Japan on October 15, 2002.

Asked about the clearest memory she has of her mother, Soga displays the watch on her wrist.

She and her mother went together to buy it when Soga started to study nursing. She wanted a watch that was much more expensive than a usual women's watch, and her mother borrowed money to pay for it.

Having the watch around her wrist is reassuring, giving her a tremendous sense of relief.

"Although she isn't here with me now, I believe she is watching me always," Soga said.

"I feel this way every day."

Soga Hitomi cherishes the watch her mother got her.

In March this year, her mother appeared in her dreams for the first time in 15 years. She was seated under a heated kotatsu table, just as she used to, talking to Soga with her face wreathed in smiles.

If they had not been abducted, her mother - who remains precious to her - would have taught her so many things, Soga says.

Watch video 1:10
Soga Hitomi talks about her mother.

Soga hopes more than anything that her mother is healthy, and believes the day will come when they can meet again.

She is sure her mother feels the same way.

In this undated photo, Soga Hitomi is held by her mother.

Bring the others home

Soga has been collecting signatures and giving lectures, calling for the rescue as soon as possible of her mother and the other abductees who have yet to return home.

In April, she began working at the Sado city office in the division taking care of the abduction issue.

Every time she saw news about fresh moves concerning the abductees, she hoped things would go well and that everybody would be home as soon as possible.

But the situation still remains unresolved, half a century later.

Soga says what she can do as one person is limited. But she wants to do everything possible so the others can, like her, finally come home.

Watch video 1:25
Soga Hitomi talks about her hopes for government actions.

She realizes that many young people don't know about the abductions, so she gives lectures at schools across the country. She also hopes to speak with students who visit the city on school trips.

People need to know that the kidnappings are not an old fairy tale, but a story that actually happened - and still is happening.

"I want young people to hear the voices of victims who lost their normal lives in an instant and were forced into a totally different world - their voices, and the voices of their families," she says. "I want them to understand."