One by one they disappeared — men, women and children vanishing from coastal towns of Japan. It began in the fall of 1977, when a security guard, vacationing on the shore, went missing in September. Two months later, a 13-year-old girl on her way home from school never made it. She was last seen just 800 feet from her house.
Weirder were the couples. The next July, one pair parked at a lovers lane went missing. Their car was left intact, no sign of a struggle, no evidence of foul play. That same month, another couple who’d ridden bicycles to the beach disappeared. They’d gone to watch a summer fireworks display, but no one reported any suspicious behavior.
The vanishings were so odd, so clinical and inexplicable, that local newspapers compared them to alien abductions. Or maybe there was a serial killer on the loose? Or maybe the couples just took off, and the security guard was in debt and committed suicide, and the 13-year-old ran away, and it was just a coincidence they all went missing almost at once.
In fact, one of the wildest plots of the 20th century was underway, one not even the most ardent conspiracy theorist could’ve conceived: North Korea, as part of a government program, was kidnapping young people by the thousands, housing them for decades in a barbed-wire compound known as the Invitation-Only Zone. There, the abducted were brainwashed, to be deployed in their homeland as spies. Or maybe they’d serve in clusters, working to destabilize their countries.
Or something. The North Korean government, it turned out, hadn’t really thought it through — and as the Hermit Kingdom rattles its saber again, claiming to have tested a hydrogen bomb last week, this story is a reminder that it may be the maddest nation on Earth.
Kaoru Hasuike was 20 years old the night he disappeared; his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, was 22. Kaoru was a law student, top of his class, Yukiko a beautician, and they planned to marry once Kaoru graduated.
The couple were biking to the fireworks that summer night, and it’s their story that propels Robert S. Boynton’s new book, “The Invitation-Only Zone.”
After ditching their bicycles, Kaoru and Yukiko had walked past the crowds to a darker, more secluded part of the beach. Four men were walking their way. One had a cigarette and asked for a light, and as Kaoru went into his pocket, the men pounced. They bound and gagged the couple, threw them into canvas bags. Kaoru was tossed in an inflatable raft.
Kaoru saw his city lights through the bag getting smaller and smaller. He was drugged and woke up 24 hours later in North Korea, told that Yukiko had been left on the beach in Japan.
“This is a violation of human rights and international law!” he told his captor. “You must return me to Japan immediately!”
His captor spoke with the flat affect of the fervent believer. “You know,” he told Kaoru, “if you want to die, this is a good way to do it.”
Then the captor explained what was going on: Kaoru was going to help reunify the Korean Peninsula and get revenge on Japan for its historical crimes against Korea. Kaoru would probably become a spy, and once North Korea’s Kim Il-sung had control of Japan, Kaoru would be at the top of the new regime.
“And when that glorious day comes,” the captor said, “we Koreans will live in peace.”
Kaoru had never heard anything so insane. Yet here he was, held in an apartment in Pyongyang, watched over by minders 24/7. He was otherwise completely alone.
Over the next year and a half, Kaoru was granted what seemed like a privilege: access to a library stacked with books in Japanese. It was the beginning of his brainwashing. There, he read about Japan’s colonization of Korea in 1910, how Korea’s men were conscripted into forced labor and women into sex slavery.
Kaoru was confused. What did this have to do with him? He was a product of post-World War II Japan and had grown up only knowing a North and South Korea — not a unified one at war with his motherland. This was ancient history to Kaoru — horrific, yes, but ancient.
Yet it was having an effect. Kaoru was beginning to feel sympathy for North Korea, a shift exploited by his minders who, 18 months into his solitary confinement, revealed that his girlfriend had been living less than a mile away. Kaoru wasn’t angry or bitter, just elated, and this was a reaction his minders predicted. Through trial and error with previous abductees, they realized 18 months was the perfect amount of time to break someone down without killing all hope.
Kaoru and Yukiko were married three days later. As Boynton writes, after the ceremony, the couple “then thanked their superiors for bringing them to the socialist paradise and allowing them to marry.”
The government’s wedding gift? A small cinder-block house in one of many Invitation-Only Zones, theirs one hour south of Pyongyang. The zones measured one square mile, and residents — some prisoners, some spies — were not encouraged to socialize.
“I can live here, if I have to. But please, God, don’t let me die here.”
The couple was woken up each morning by an official state announcement, transmitted through speakers installed in every house and building in North Korea. They’d have breakfast. Kaoru tried to keep his mind sharp, building a mini-golf course and making a mahjong set. They had each other, yet Kaoru and Yukiko were still incredibly lonely.
“In the same ways that, as a child, I made up games without toys or playmates, I found ways to play by myself in the Invitation-Only Zone,” Kaoru said. Each week, the government screened movies, all propaganda. Other nights, they’d watch TV until the electricity went out.
The abductees were forced to learn Korean alone, teaching themselves with old textbooks. They were also forced to keep a journal, to be read by their minders, and Kaoru limited his entries to the mundane: what time he woke up, what he ate, if he exercised.
“Isn’t there anything else you’d like to write about?” his minder asked.
“But every day here is the same,” Kaoru replied. His minder never asked again.
For all the indoctrination, Kaoru could not get over how much war consumed the North Koreans. It was all they talked about — specifically, war with the US, which was not a matter of if but when.
Kaoru was terrified that he’d be drafted into an apocalyptic battle with the United States. He began practicing English for the imminent invasion, perfecting two lines: “We are abducted Japanese. Please help us!”
In 1946, Kim Il-sung issued a decree. “On Transporting Intellectuals from South Korea” was a state-sponsored edict to abduct 500,000 high-level professionals and policemen — compensation for those North Koreans who’d fled in the run-up to the Korean War.
In the early years, North Korean officials simply knocked on doors, taking whoever they wanted. Boynton writes that the North probably took 84,000 South Koreans and conscripted 60,000 into the army.
By the 1970s, the North Koreans had expanded. They were not only abducting in Japan, but all over the world. A Thai woman was abducted in 1978 from Macau; the same year, in Beirut, North Korean operatives kidnapped four Lebanese women. They took people from Eastern and Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and it’s believed that North Korea has abducted 4,000 South Koreans since 1953.
Boynton writes that the program really kicked into gear as Kim Jong-il began his ascent to power. A movie fanatic, he ordered the kidnapping of South Korea’s most famous actress and her director husband in 1978. (They were eventually allowed to travel outside the country and escaped).
Meanwhile, Kaoru and Yukiko met another couple: Yasushi and Fukie Chimura, the young Japanese couple who’d driven to a lovers lane in July of 1978. They were cuddling on a bench when they were jumped by four men, tied up, thrown in individual bags and tossed in a small dinghy. They woke up in North Korea and were separated for 18 months.
“I can live here, if I have to,” was Fukie’s mantra. “But please, God, don’t let me die here.”
Both couples started families, and they’d celebrate their children’s birthdays together. Without realizing it, they were doing exactly what the state wanted: Their children were not only new assets, but they bound their parents more tightly to North Korea.
Now, they were afforded more freedoms. Fukie was allowed to go to the shopping center, albeit with her minder. No matter how many times it happened, she was always shocked to see so many other abductees from so many other countries: Lebanon, Thailand, Romania, Italy.
The couples were allowed magazines and newspapers from Japan. They were heavily redacted, but in 1997, Fukie came across an article about families of Japanese abductees. An old photograph of her ran alongside it, as did a photo of Kaoru’s father, looking frail and wan.
“I felt like I was suffocating,” Kaoru said. “I knew that my disappearance was the reason my father had aged so much.”
Two years prior, an electrifying documentary had aired on Japanese TV. “Between the Dark Waves: North Korea’s Espionage Project” resulted in pleas for help from multiple families of the disappeared. Kaoru’s father was among them.
“No matter how much we ask for help for Kaoru, the government refuses to do anything,” he said. “I don’t think we can get him back. It’s painful even to think about it.”
Under increasing public pressure, the Japanese government attempted negotiations with North Korea. They could not use word “abductees,” however — the North Koreans would always leave the room. So they began using the euphemism “missing people.”
For the North, forcing the Japanese prime minister to come to them — figuratively and literally — was great propaganda. On Sept. 17, 2002, Kim Jong-il and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi held a joint press conference, in which Kim admitted to a brief, “appalling incident” resulting in the abduction of several Japanese by rogue North Korean agents.
“As soon as their scheme and deeds were brought to my attention, those who were responsible were punished.”
Privately, North Korea told Japan that of 13 Japanese they’d abducted — a suspiciously low number — eight were dead. Among the living were Kaoru and Yukiko and Fukie and Yasushi, who would be permitted a brief visit to their homeland. Each couple’s children, however, would be forced to stay behind.
In Japan, the abductees’ return was the biggest story since 9/11, generating 24-hour news coverage. It was both a moment of pride and humiliation for Japan, and the abductees themselves were thoroughly confused.
Should they try to stay in Japan? Pyongyang had sent minders along to monitor their every move — what would happen to their children? Would the Japanese government try to save face by refusing to allow the abductees to return?
The latter question was actually debated by Koizumi’s administration. It was then-undersecretary Shinzo Abe, who is now prime minister, who insisted on the most sensible solution: The decision should be made by the abductees — who all elected to stay.
Japan called it “an extended visit,” sparing North Korea further hu
miliation and allowing for negotiations over the children. Two years later, in May 2004, they were reunited with their parents.
Today, Kaoru attends university in Japan, where he is studying for a degree in Korean studies. He is not given to displays of emotion or great introspection, but when Boynton asked why he thought he’d been kidnapped, Kaoru had the most paradoxically logical answer.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” he said. “There was no real reason for our abductions, at least no reason that makes any sense. We were taken in order to be used as a chit in some future negotiations. That is the only conclusion I have come to.”
Today, Boynton writes, there are at least 500 abductees still being held in North Korea.