The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project
By Robert S. Boynton
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 271 pages
If you put this idea to the people who finance horror movies, they would send you away, saying that it was too far-fetched to believe. And yet there is no denying that during the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of people (or thousands, no-one knows for sure) were snatched from their daily lives by the North Korean government. Finding out anything about North Korea is difficult at the best of times, but in this book Boynton has done a good job of piecing the story together from scraps of information, and from interviews with abductees who were allowed to return to their home countries.
Most of the people who were taken were Japanese, but there were also others: a Thai woman, four Lebanese women, others from Eastern and Western Europe. South Koreans as well, probably thousands. North Koreans agents would simply knock on random doors and kidnap whoever answered. People were usually taken singly but many were abducted as couples.
There was a practised precision to the process, involving drugging and movement of unconscious victims in secure crates. The weirdest thing is that the clinical nature of the grab was not matched by any real idea of what to do with the abductees once they were in North Korea, ensconced in camps designed to look like little towns (the “invitation-only zones” of the title). One idea of the North Korean government appeared to be to brainwash them and return them to act as spies. This did not work very well, as the abductees had no access to any sort of government information or facilities. Trying to train them as North Korean soldiers also failed; they were neither physically or psychologically suitable (one abductee was only 13, a Japanese girl who had been kidnapped walking home from badminton practice).
In other cases, abductees reported being grilled for days over details of daily life: television shows, shops, food, clothes, nothing at all, really. Some were forced to learn Korean and were then made to translate documents, but the material appeared to have no security value.
One odd recurring note is that the abductees were encouraged to partner up and have children. Boynton follows the story of a Japanese couple, Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, who had been taken from a beach on a romantic outing. Were they encouraged to have children to tie them more firmly to North Korea? As a bargaining chip? Were the children going to be trained as spies and assassins? It was never clear. It is as if the whole program began on a passing comment of the Leader – “I wish we knew more about Japan”, perhaps – and then the security apparatus swung into action without thinking the thing through.
In 2002, five Japanese abductees, including Kaoru and Yukiko, were allowed to return to Japan (but without their children) as part of a rapprochement between the two countries. It was big news, but no-one knew how many others had been taken in the program or what had happened to them. Boynton admits that much of the story is a mystery, although he suggests that there are still hundreds of people in the Zones, doing … well, who can guess? The only good news is that the abduction program was wound up in the late 1980s. The worrying thing is about how easy it would be to start it up again.
For the abductees, perhaps the most nightmarish aspect would be the sheer pointlessness of it. A trained spy or a professional soldier knows the game and the risks, but the abductees were notable only for their ordinariness. Maybe the final word should go to Kaoru Hasuike, who in the book’s conclusion says: “I’ve thought about it a lot, and the whole thing is still a paradox to me. There was no reason for our abductions. No reason, at least, that makes any sense.”