Imagine sending your 13-year-old daughter out to badminton practice. The walks to and fro nearly every day are without trouble. You live in a beautiful small coastal town with virtually no crime. Your little girl leaves and never comes home – you wait for hours, then days, then years. She seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. Imagine the trauma you would experience by simply not knowing anything. Now try to imagine how you would feel if you found out that your beautiful little girl had been kidnapped by one of the dictatorial countries in the world… This is what happened to 13-year-old Megumi Yokota who was abducted in November of 1977. And this is the story of the North Korean Abduction Project that kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens.
I first heard about this issue many years ago after I first got married. I had just finished watching a very interesting documentary on North Korea and I was talking to my wife (who is Japanese) about some of the things I learned. She said something like, “Yeah, North Korea is totally crazy. They kidnapped a bunch of Japanese people to have them teach their spies.” After she said this, I scoffed. I thought it was a conspiracy theory. I said something like, “That can’t be true, everyone would know about it.” She persisted that she was telling the truth, so after a quick Google search, I was quite shocked to find out that she was right after all. She gave me one of those smug “I told you so” looks that only wives can give. But that leaves us with some profound questions, why did North Korea kidnap Japanese people? How were they treated? How did Japanese people react? And why don’t more people know about it?
Before we can dive into the issue at hand, we need to understand a little about Japan’s relationship with Korea and the development of North and South Korea. Korea has always been a state firmly connected to both China and Japan. After beating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, Japan was able to claim Korea as a protectorate in 1905. A few years later, Japan made a full-out claim of Korea as part of its own territory in 1910. Resistance to Japan was strong in many parts of Korea and there were often demonstrations against the Japanese military. Later, violent resistance groups began to pop up.
After the atomic bombings of World War II, the Russian military tore through the Japanese armies stationed in China and Korea. With the war’s cessation in 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States chose to temporarily split Korea at the 38th parallel. The Soviet Union would be in charge of the northern half, while the southern half would be run by the United States. The Soviet Union chose Kim Il-sung as the leader of the north. All seemed to go well… until it didn’t anymore.
During the Korean War, North Korean Forces pushed nearly to the tip of South Korea when the United Nations stepped in and aided the south. Similarly, China and the Soviet Union assisted the north. Up to this day, the two Koreas remain to be separated and in a state of perpetual stalemate.
Spycraft has always been an important part of not only warfare but of diplomacy as well. When we think of spies, we tend to think of James Bond and Jason Bourne, but that is not how spying really works. Of course, high-level spying and having moles among the politicians of your rival are important steps. A country can learn a lot from having a spy that runs the local greengrocer. They can learn the mood of the citizens and use that information to destabilize or push their own agenda. Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin was a master when it came to his spy ring. It was probably the best in the world for a long time. He knew that if you wanted your spies to be successful, they have to fit in with the culture of your rival.
Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-Il knew that they needed to keep up to date on all things going on outside their country. With Japan’s economy growing incredibly fast and becoming more and more a close ally of the United States, they knew that they needed to get more spies into Japan. Furthermore, Japan has a rather large contingent of Koreans born and raised in the country and that they could prove to be a resource.
But North Korea, by the ’60s and ’70s, had a big problem. Their entire culture was a personality cult of the “Great Leader.” Although North Korean spies could blend in physically in Japan, they would stick out like a sore thumb culturally and linguistically. So they decided to “invite” some experts to teach their spies.
There were a variety of methods used to take people. One way was that they sent North Korean special forces onto the beaches of Japan who literally threw Japanese civilians into sacks and rode them out to North Korea by boat. They also tricked some by saying that they have jobs abroad waiting for them. There were also several who were taken while they were traveling in Europe. For a long time, the police and the government did not connect the various disappearances.
For the most part, North Korean agents tried to abduct people in pairs – most preferably young couples. If they managed this, they would be separated and North Korean agents would try to brainwash the captives. They would be told that their loved one was gone and often threats would be made about their safety. Once the prisoner was mentally broken down, they would be reunited with their partner. This would strangely make them feel indebted to their captors.
They would then be placed in these special “invitation-only zones” that were basically gated communities where you had to have a special government pass to be able to enter. People in these communities were those who had been exposed to life outside of North Korea. The government feared that if common people heard about the outside world from these people who had experience, they might look around at the squalid existence they were living and revolt.
The captives would be given teaching jobs or translation jobs. They would also be watched at all times by agents trying to pick up their mannerisms and other unconscious cultural manifestations.
Compared to the average North Korean citizen, the Japanese captives lived well. They had better food. And slightly more freedom. The captives would be allowed to get married and have children. Of course, the children would be brought up as “true patriots” who saluted to a picture of the Great Leader each morning. Try to imagine that. You have been a captive of a government that your child now reveres and you can’t do or say anything otherwise out of fear for your little family. It is a level of psychological torture that I cannot begin to understand.
As the abductions were happening throughout the ’70s and ’80s for a long time, no one connected them to North Korea. But as time passed, some rumors began popping up. And the idea that Japanese citizens were being kidnapped became a conspiracy theory akin to flying saucers. No major reputable newspaper would run the story. It just seemed too much like a movie plot. It’s like if you have a family member who swears he has seen a UFO, you might begin to doubt his judgment or sanity. That was how this issue was seen for over 20 years until September 17, 2002.
The Japanese people were shocked when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited North Korea in 2002 and got Kim Jong-Il to formally admit that Japanese citizens had been captured. He claimed that they were abducted by overzealous and over-patriotic North Koreans. Both Koizumi and Jong-Il made the announcement hoping that they could put all rumors to bed and move on with trying to stabilize relations. However, the announcement had quite the opposite effect.
The author Robert Boynton, who has been one of the lead reporters on this subject, said in a discussion with The Korea Society that he was told by a Japanese friend that these kidnappings and the 2002 admission were “Japan’s September 11th.” Since the end of World War II, Japan has seen itself as being inoculated from a lot of the troubles and violence of the outside world. These kidnappings showed a flaw in that belief. The world can be a strange and dangerous place, and Japanese aren’t even safe in their own neighborhoods. I think that one reason this was particularly soul shattering was the immense feeling of powerlessness.
I remember having a terrible dream many years ago. It was just before getting married. I had a dream I was introducing my wife to my slightly estranged father, and he suddenly began to beat her severely. I tried to stop him, but I couldn’t move! My body was entirely frozen. I couldn’t even scream as he beat the woman I loved. That feeling of complete helplessness is how I imagine many Japanese people felt when they heard of these kidnappings. There was literally nothing they could have done. Japan had no military with the ability to rescue them, Japan had no leverage with which to pressure North Korea. Eventually, 5 of the kidnapped people were returned, and some of the rest were allowed to visit. And the Japanese people would only wish them farewell…
As I consider this question, I’m struck by a quote from one of my favorite classical movies, Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart says, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” I find this line particularly apropos. For the families of the kidnapped people, this is a tragedy unlike any other in the history of time. But considered in the environment of major international politics, the lives and happiness of 17 Japanese young people mean very little. It is so terrible to write that. And how I wish it were different. But seriously consider what should Japan have done? Robert Boynton in his book, The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project, gives evidence that the Japanese government knew about these kidnappings years before it was divulged to the public. What should they have done? What could they have done? Declare war on North Korea? By Article 9 of the Constitution, Japan can’t, and even if they could, would saving 17 be worth the hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands, of deaths war would cause? It’s an impossible question for an impossible situation.
When I first heard the quote about these kidnappings being akin to American’s experience of September 11th, I thought it was a gross hyperbole. But after giving it more thought and consideration, I kind of have to agree with the sentiment. Of course, by sheer scale and aggression, it is completely incomparable, but in terms of the feelings of powerlessness and fear, it is similar. We live in a scary, crazy world. Each day it seems to get more so. It is easy to live in fear. It is easy to give in to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. But I look at the parents and families of the kidnapped victims and see their strength. They carry on each day with the hope that they will see their loved ones again soon and be able to hold them again. If they can have such strength in the face of such incredible adversity, maybe we can too.