Taken to the Leader

Why did Pyongyang kidnap several dozen Japanese?

The view to North Korea from China (Roman Harak/Flickr)
The view to North Korea from China (Roman Harak/Flickr)


The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project by Robert S. Boynton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $26

On a cool evening in mid-July 1978, near the city of Kashiwazaki on Japan’s west coast, Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, rode their bikes down to the beach to watch a fireworks display, hoping to be alone. But they were not alone. Four men approached under the pretense of asking for a light. Suddenly, the two young people, barely out of their teens, were gagged, blindfolded, and stuffed into canvas sacks. The next time Kaoru and Yukiko saw daylight, they were in North Korea. For nearly two years, both were isolated from everyone but their “minders,” who were determined to “clean and wash away [their] old thoughts” so that they would understand how lucky they were to be living in “the bosom of the Fatherly Leader,” Kim Il Sung. Finally reunited but still in captivity, they married and soon moved into a fully furnished, comfortable three-bedroom home in a North Korean “invitation-only zone.” Everything was provided for them, except the most important things: their freedom and an explanation for why they had been abducted.

Kaoru and Yukiko’s disappearance didn’t cause a sensation in their homeland. After all, people go missing all the time, leaving their anguished families to search for them, turning up no leads and no answers, alone with their terrible loss. Since 1977, people had been mysteriously vanishing from Japan’s east coast. Even so, the disappearances represented only a modest uptick in police data, and no one imagined that a nearby nation-state would plot to steal the futures of several dozen of Japan’s young people. Two decades later, in 2002, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, did something almost as unexpected and bizarre as the original crime: he admitted to the scheme and apologized for it in a face-to-face meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. Now the abductions were a sensation: a media frenzy enveloped Japan, a 24-hour-a-day bedlam that brought to bear huge pressure on Koizumi to do something—his public support dropped from 81 percent to 44 percent in a single week. It likewise left Kim Jong Il’s not-so-well-laid plans in ruins: he had hoped that by apologizing, he could normalize relations with Japan and get billions of much-needed yen in the form of what Kim saw as reparations for Japan’s colonial rule in Korea.

Robert S. Boynton has produced the first well-researched account in English of this abduction scheme (there is an enormous literature in Japanese), but it is far from a dry, academic text. The Invitation-Only Zone is lively and beautifully written, telling the story through the experience of Kaoru and Yukiko, as well as a number of other people caught up in the maelstrom of forces beyond their control. Boynton, who directs the literary reportage program at New York University, displays an admirably objective and nuanced perspective, unlike so much of the literature on the Hermit Kingdom. He also skillfully intersperses the personal stories with accounts of the modern history of Japan and Korea, which help the reader to understand how fraught and intractable the relations between the two countries have been and will most likely continue to be.

Kaoru and Yukiko took up housekeeping in North Korea’s version of a gated community: a mile-square neighborhood of pleasant-enough homes set among wooded hills and centered by an administrative building, from which all their needs were supplied by a coterie of guards, housekeepers, cooks, and tutors. Somewhat to his surprise, Kaoru found himself  “touched by the kindness and humanity of the ordinary Koreans he met.” Minders were supposed to accompany them everywhere, but over time the minding flagged, and they were able to get out and around, especially to small private markets, where using a small subsidy provided by the state, they could occasionally purchase little luxuries. Kaoru was even able to fashion a five-hole golf course, “using balls made from glued-together cotton swabs.” All they lacked was an understanding of the North Korean regime’s motive in secreting them away from Japan.

The Japanese conscripts found themselves in a country on a permanent war footing. Talk of the next war was as common as the innumerable memorials to the last one. The regime pursued an unending game of espionage with the South Koreans, going so far, Boynton writes, as to replicate beneath the streets of Pyongyang the streets of Seoul—a five-mile-long mockup of a downtown district, complete with restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, where spies could school themselves in the finer points of South Korean nightlife.


What was behind the kidnapping scheme? What did North Korea expect to get out of it? Boynton addresses these questions forthrightly and concludes that he doesn’t know. If they were to be spies, why kidnap ordinary Japanese when hundreds of thousands of Koreans live in Japan, are fluent in the language, and might easily pass for Japanese? If they were to be language teachers, why not employ older Koreans who were fluent in Japanese, the language of the colonial period? He heard a multitude of hypotheses and theories, but ultimately, he writes, “there was no single motivation.” It seems to have been a rogue operation where even the rogues weren’t quite sure what the point of it all was.

And it isn’t over: Kim Jong Il admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese, of whom five were returned to Japan; the other eight were said to have died in accidents or by suicide, though no one outside the North really believes that. Today, Tokyo and Pyongyang still have no formal diplomatic relations, both Kim Jong Il and his father are dead, and the country is run by a young man not much older than Kaoru was when this mystery began on that beach so many years ago.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Bruce Cumings is the Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History at the University of Chicago, and the author of North Korea: Another Country.


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