Seven Decades of North Korean Kidnapping


With a planned US-North Korean summit on the horizon, the foreign policy world is debating the aims to be pursued in the historic meeting and discussing the outcomes that may be expected.

In Japan, however, there is one priority issue that to which the rest of the world may be ignorant: the return of twelve Japanese citizens abducted from their home country by North Korean spies. These twelve are only the tip of the iceberg. North Korea's abduction program goes back decades. Diligent researchers and human rights groups maintain that North Korea has abducted more than 4,000 foreign nationals from at least 15 countries.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Japanese government says, North Korea conducted a campaign of targeted kidnappings under cover of night. Japanese men and women were physically snatched up by Korean People's Army commandos and forced into black bags, hurled onto motorboats, and sped to the Hermit Kingdom beyond the sea. Some were as young as 13 years old.

For decades, North Korea authorities denied involvement in the terroristic campaign. The Japanese government, unable to confirm what was going on, preferred to ignore it. But the pressure put on Tokyo by heartbroken families and outraged activists eventually moved it to officially demand the return of the abducted persons. In 2002, Kim Jong-il, then the ruler of North Korea, shocked the world by admitting to the abductions.

However, after being provided a list of 17 abductees by the Japanese government, the North Korean regime responded that of the list, five abductees had died and denied all knowledge of four others. (The alleged remains of some abductees were repatriated from North Korea back to Japan, but DNA testing has proved inconclusive and family members believe the supposedly-deceased abductees to be alive.) 

After the summit, five abductees—Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, Kaoru and Yukiko Hasuike, and Hitomi Soga—were allowed to return to their homes after years in captivity. In the upcoming summit, the status and whereabouts of the remaining twelve recognized abductees will be discussed. 

While there is no question that the acts of abduction themselves are heinous breaches of international law, upon deeper examination, the reasons behind the North Korean abduction program makes it even more shocking and macabre.

A groundbreaking special report called Taken! North Korea's Criminal Abduction of Citizens of Other Countries, published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) in 2011, tells the full story of the mad ambitions behind North Korea's global kidnapping scheme. The report alleges that more than 4,000 foreign nationals have been abducted since 1946: 3,800 South Koreans, 200 Chinese citizens (mostly of Korean ethnicity), as many as 100 Japanese citizens, and at least 25 foreign nationals from other countries around the world, including France, Guinea, Hong Kong, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, Macau, Malaysia, Romania, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States.

The question that remains is: why? Why would a country expend considerable resources on a decades-long covert kidnapping program? 

According to Robert S. Boynton, the veteran journalist and author of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project, the abduction program has its roots in a directive issued during the Korean War by Kim Il-sung, the original dictator installed in North Korea by the Soviet Union after World War II. To make up for the significant brain drain experienced in the early days of the Korean Peninsula's partition, North Korea would import some 500,000 South Koreans (apparently all of them "intellectuals"). 

After the 1953 armistice, the program was modified to accommodate a number of different aims. At one point, the focus was on kidnapping foreign language and culture educators for North Korean spies. Later, the North Korean propaganda industry required an infusion of foreign expertise. One famous South Korean film actress, Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped in Hong Kong along with her ex-husband, Shin Sang-ok, a famous director. The two were forced to make propaganda films under the personal direction of Kim Jong-il. (In fact, the two would rekindle their marriage while held in captivity; this story was immortalized in the movie The Lovers and the Despot.)

In North Korea, abductees were paired off and strongly encouraged to marry. Once wed, they were given the “generous gift” of a house, in an isolated, prison-like “invitation-only zone” outside of Pyongyang. Most disturbingly, their children—raised in North Korea, loyal to the Kim regime, fluent in Korea, but ethnically non-Korean—were to be deployed as spies and sleeper agents abroad.

It was rumors of this sinister plot that led Charles Robert Jenkins, a former US Army soldier who had been imprisoned in North Korea since his drunken desertion in 1964, to leave during the 2006 repatriation with his Japanese abductee wife, Hitomi Soga, and their two daughters, Mika and Brinda, lest the girls be dragooned into being agents of subversion.

No one knows for sure how many abductees remain in North Korea today. South Korea’s government says that nearly 500 of its citizens are still held by its secretive northern neighbor. As North Korea tries to rhetorically position itself as a responsible and mature member of the community of nations, the international community should remember not only to advocate for the return of all the foreign nationals held against their will in North Korea, but also recall just what kind of regime would embark on such a horrifying and destructive scheme in the first place.