December 9th, 2004


Forensic item

Relations between Japan and North Korea have hit a new snag:

In the latest of a series of bizarre twists, DNA tests revealed that cremated remains that Pyongyang said belonged to Megumi Yokota, a Japanese citizen abducted by North Korea in 1977, were not hers.

Pyongyang has admitted that its agents seized Ms Yokota from the northern Japanese town of Niigata when she was 13 and took her to North Korea to help train spies in Japanese language and customs. But it said she hanged herself in 1993, a date it later changed to April 1994.

The North Korean government sent her purported remains to Japan for analysis last month as part of information it supplied on 10 missing abductees, eight of whom it says are dead. DNA tests revealed that the remains contained the bones of two people, neither of whom were Ms Yokota.

Nothing the Norks do will ever, ever surprise me, but I do find it odd to see DNA cited in a cremains analysis. Commercial cremations occur around 1700 degrees, and it utterly destroys all organic material in the bone. What's left behind is the mineral substance, and that is calcined and brittle. It's broken up mechanically at the crematory. When you get an urn of Great-Uncle Egbert's ashes, you're not actually getting ashes. You're getting ground-up burned bones.

My guess is that the account released by the Japanese is disinformation, and that they actually did something quite different to analyze the remains but don't want the Norks to know what they did. Or they have the info through intelligence, but don't want to blow the source.

Also: I don't know anything about North Korean crematories. But I am willing to bet money that they're not set up to do just one person at a time.