Summer Reading on Abductions 2: Robert Boynton’s Invitation-Only Zone



Last week, I reviewed Paul Fischer’s page-turning account of the abduction of Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, A Kim Jong Il Production. By chance, Robert Boynton, director of NYU’s magazine journalism program, has an equally compelling piece of investigative journalism on the Japanese abductions entitled The Invitation-Only Zone. The book interleafs chapters on the history of Japan-Korea relations with chapters devoted to the stories of Japanese abductees. All of the more spectacular defections receive attention, including Choi and Lee, Megumi Yokota—who became the poster child for the abductee movement in Japan—to the case of Hitomi Soga, who was effectively married off to American defector Charles Robert Jenkins. But the heartbreaking story of Kaoru and Yokiku Hasuike and their children, born in North Korea, receives particular attention and provides insight into the daily life of the abductees, their efforts to adjust to long-term house arrest and the challenges of repatriation.

A number of the historical chapters are little gems, beginning in prehistoric times with a fascinating discussion of early Japanese anthropology and its preoccupation with possible Korean heritage. Another particularly heartbreaking story is the great repatriation project under which 93,000 Koreans living in Japan “returned” to North Korea even though some had been born in Japan. Abetted by the ideological commitments of the Chosen Soren, Boynton notes the irony that these freely-returning Koreans actually fared worse than the abductees, who were seen to have material value for the regime. 

It is hard to convey the utter disorientation of being abducted and deposited into one of Pyongyang’s “invitation-only zones,” which housed an odd assortment of abductees, spies and those with particular foreign language expertise that could pose a threat to the regime. Boynton recounts the mind-numbing ideological indoctrination, the isolation, but most curiously the uncertain purpose that the abductees served. Although it is widely believed that abductees taught Japanese to spies, the couple spent most of their time translating Japanese news stories, a task that hardly required a native speaker. Another abductee became a factory worker.

One of the more bizarre stories in the book is about the Red Army Faction group that hijacked a Japanese airliner in 1970. Initially landing in Seoul, the group managed to negotiate hostages for safe passage to the North. Effectively interred in a Potemkin “Japanese Village of the Revolution,” the group received its just desserts in being subjected to similar ideological training as other abductees, despite protestations of being fellow revolutionaries. As the group got restless, the regime promised to abduct Japanese women for them culminating in the “Marriage Project” in 1977 when the entire group was married off; Kim Il Sung even attended one of the ceremonies.

North Korea’s plausible deniability about the abductions began to unravel after the bombing of Korean Air 858 in 1987, a flight returning from the Middle East with South Korean contract workers that blew up near the Burma-Thai border. Despite an attempt to commit suicide on being captured, one of the North Korean agents responsible for the bombing—Kim Hyon-hui—survived and subsequently revealed under interrogation that she had been taught Japanese by an abductee. Sleuthing by an ambitious Japanese reporter, Kenji Ishidaka, initially lifted the lid on the victims of the repatriation project, despite intimidation by the Chosen Soren. Through a cloak-and-dagger stroke of luck, Ishidaka also broke the story on the abductees as well in a documentary aired in 1996; a relative of one of the repatriates he had interviewed confessed that she had fallen in love with a North Korean agent involved in the abduction business.

These revelations ultimately forced the government of Japan to take up the issue, and it has quite legitimately been a preoccupation of Japanese diplomacy with the North ever since. The book walks through the diplomacy leading up to Koizumi’s 2002 visit, the signing of the Pyongyang Declaration, which hinged critically on a resolution of the abduction issue, and the unraveling as remains provided by the North were revealed by simple DNA tests to be fabricated.

The Koizumi visit permitted a rounding out of the story, as he was able to secure the temporary release of Hitomi Soga, the Hauikes and a second couple, the Chimuras, who had suffered a parallel fate; it was a picture of these returnees getting off the plane from Pyonyang that piqued Boynton’s interest in the story. In one of the last chapters of the book, Boynton details the chilling family politics as Kaoru Hauike insists until the last minute in holding to the agreement that he return to North Korea, where his children were held hostage.

If anything, the North Koreans understand leverage: “it would take eighteen months of negotiation, a second Koizumi visit to Pyongyang and 250,000 tons of rice to release the children, who finally joined their parents in May 2004.” In a final interview, Boynton presses the reluctant Kaoru Hauike on the puzzle that runs through the book: what was the entire abduction project really about? More than any of the other abductees, Hauike clearly internalized North Korean culture, but his answer is probably as good as any: “we were taken in order to be used as a chit in some future negotiation.” Sound familiar? 

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