North Korea’s Abduction Project

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    DECEMBER 21, 2015

    North Koreas Abduction ProjectBY ROBERT S. BOYNTON

    O

    Kaoru Hasuike and Yukiko Okudo were kidnapped fromJapan by North Korean operatives in 1978.

    KYODO / COURTESY FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX

    n the evening of July 31, 1978, KaoruHasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo,

    rode bikes to the summer fireworks festival at theKashiwazaki town beach. They whisked down thewinding lanes of their coastal farming village, a hundred and forty miles north of Tokyo.Then they parked their bikes and made their way past a crowd of spectators to a remotestretch of sand. As the first plumes rose in the sky, Kaoru noticed four men approaching.Cigarette in hand, one of them asked him for a light. As he reached into his pocket, themen attacked, gagging the couple, binding their hands and legs. Keep quiet and wewont hurt you, one of the assailants said. Kaoru and Yukiko were thrown into separatesacks and loaded onto an inflatable raft. Peering through the sacks netting, Kaoru sawthe warm, bright lights of Kashiwazaki City fading into the background.

    An hour later, he was transferred to a ship idling offshore and forced to swallow severalpills: antibiotics to prevent his injuries from becoming infected, a sedative to put him tosleep, and medicine to relieve seasickness. Two nights later, he arrived in Chongjin, NorthKorea. Yukiko was nowhere in sight, and Kaorus captors told him that she had been leftbehind in Japan.

    Kaoru, who was twenty, had fashionably shaggy hair and a ready smile. Cocky andintelligent, he was studying at Tokyos prestigious Chuo University. Still, like much of hisgeneration in Japan, he wasnt interested in politics, and knew almost nothing aboutKorea, North or South. Yukiko, twenty-two, the daughter of a local rice farmer, was abeautician for Kanebo, one of Japans leading cosmetics companies. She and Kaoru hadbeen dating for a year, and he planned to propose to her once he finished his law degree.

    The overnight train from Chongjin to Pyongyang was bumpy, and by the time Kaoruarrived the next morning he was furious. This is a violation of human rights andinternational law!he shouted. You must return me to Japan immediately! His abductorwatched his tirade calmly. Kaoru, seeing that confrontation wasnt getting any response,tried evoking sympathy. You have to understand that my parents are in ill health, heexplained. Their condition would worsen if they worried about him.

    You know, his abductor said, if you want to die, this is a good way to do it. He told

  • KYou know, his abductor said, if you want to die, this is a good way to do it. He told

    Kaoru that the reason he had been kidnapped was to help reunify the Korean Peninsula,

    the sacred duty of every North Korean citizen. After all the pain his Japanese forefathers

    had inflicted on Korea, the man continued, it was the least that Kaoru, who had

    benefitted from his countrys rapacious colonial exploits, could do. Precisely how he

    would hasten reunification was left ambiguous. The abductor hinted that he would train

    Korean spies to pass as Japanese, and perhaps become a spy himself.

    You see, once the Peninsula is unified under the command of General Kim Il-sung, a

    beautiful new era will begin, he went on. North Korean socialism would spread

    throughout Asia, including Japan. And when that glorious day comes, we Koreans will

    live in peace. And when you go home at that time youll have an excellent position at the

    top of the regime!

    Kaoru was placed in an apartment in Pyongyang. Escape was virtually impossible; three

    minders monitored him twenty-four hours a day, each taking an eight-hour shift.

    Although he didnt have a religious background, he tried praying, placing his palms

    together and pressing them to his eyes. This display of piety elicited ridicule from his

    captors. In North Korean movies, the only characters who prayed were the cowardly

    Japanese prisoners begging for mercy.

    aoru was given access to a restricted library with Japanese-language books about

    the history of North Korea. Japan demobilized the Korean Army in 1907, and

    officially annexed Korea on August 29, 1910. The Japanese were careful to distinguish

    between Korean leaders (inept, corrupt) and the Korean people (proto-Japanese, full of

    potential), and predicted that Korea would thrive now that it was part of the Japanese

    Empire. From the late thirties through 1945, Japan pushed Koreans to assimilate,

    requiring them to speak Japanese, take Japanese names, and worship at Shinto shrines.

    Men were forced to labor in Japanese factories and mines, and some women were

    dragooned into sexual slavery. Roughly two hundred and thirteen thousand Koreans

    fought in the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy.

    By the end of the Second World War, four million Koreans were living outside Korea,

    and more than seven hundred thousand Japanese civilians and troops were living inside

    Korea. But the loss of the Japanese Empire meant that a new theory of Japanese identity

    was required. In postwar Korea and Japan, a rhetoric of racial purity thrived. Within the

    Korean Peninsula, the newly independent North and South competed to see which could

    more thoroughly eradicate Japans influence, in an effort to become the Korean peoples

    legitimate homeland.

    In January, 1980, after eighteen months in North Korea, Kaoru was summoned to his

    minders office. Several officials were waiting for him. They announced that Yukiko, his

    girlfriend, was in North Korea after all. In fact, she was in the next room. It turned out

    that the story about her being left behind in Japan had been a ruse designed to force

  • that the story about her being left behind in Japan had been a ruse designed to force

    Kaoru to cut all emotional ties to Japan. The couple had been undergoing the same

    pedagogical routine: learning Korean, studying the regimes ideology, wondering whether

    they could survive in this strange country. Like much else in North Korea, their isolation

    had been staged.

    Kaoru and Yukiko married three days after they were reunited. I would have done it that

    morning, Kaoru said. I didnt want to wait. The groom received a haircut and was

    outfitted with a new white shirt and a necktie; the bride wore a simple flower-patterned

    dress. The ceremony was officiated by the most senior official present, who opened by

    invoking the blessings of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung.

    The most important wedding present a North Korean newlywed couple can receive is a

    home in which to start their new life. (Because there is virtually no private property, the

    gift is from the state, and can be withdrawn at any time.) Hasuikes first home was a

    traditional one-story cinder-block house an hour south of Pyongyang. Painted white, it

    had a wooden roof with ceramic tile shingles and five rooms: a kitchen, two bedrooms, a

    living room, and a bathroom. In the back was a small garden where Kaoru grew

    vegetables. He got seed and fertilizer by trading cigarettes with farmers from a nearby

    food coperative, and arranged for a cow to till the field at the beginning of the growing

    season. He became fond of kimchi, and started making it for himself in the traditional

    manner, stuffing cabbage and hot red peppers into clay pots and burying them in the

    yard to ferment.

    Their house was situated in one of the many guarded invitation-only zones that dot

    suburban Pyongyang. The area, a square mile, limited its inhabitants freedom while

    warning outsiders that only those invited to enter were welcome. All North Koreans

    develop a heightened sensitivity to coded language, and they knew well enough to avoid

    it. The development was a well-tended prison inside the secretive state. Still, the housing

    and food were better than what most North Koreans had. Kaoru saw the place as a gilded

    cage.

    Hasuikes neighbors were an odd assortment: other abductees, North Korean spies,

    foreign-language expertsanyone whose access to outside information made them a

    threat to the regimes carefully crafted official narrative. With small clusters of houses

    fanning out from a central building, each separated from the others by densely wooded,

    artificial hills, the invitation-only zone was designed to discourage private contact among

    residents. At its center, the roads converged on a large guest house, which had spaces for

    meetings and classes. As part of the governments attempt to control the flow of

    information into the country, the North grants few long-term visas to foreign visitors, so

    this cluster of Japanese abductees provided a rare educational opportunity for spies, many

    of whom would be sent to infiltrate Japan.

    The Hasuikes were given jobs translating articles from Japanese into Korean. (The task,

  • KThe Hasuikes were given jobs translating articles from Japanese into Korean. (The task,oddly, could have been performed by any one of the millions of North Koreans who hadbeen forced to learn Japanese during the colonial era.) At the start of every week, theywould receive a stack of Japanese magazines and newspapers, with sections blacked outby a censor and specific articles circled for translation.

    The newlyweds fell into a routine. Each morning, after being woken up by anannouncement from the radio loudspeaker that is installed in every North Korean houseand workplace, Yukiko would prepare a traditional Korean breakfast of rice, eggs, andkimchi. Afterwards, Kaoru would go for a run, taking a route past identical