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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Summer Reading 1: Abducted!

by | June 14th, 2011 | 02:51 pm
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Summer reading on abductions? Hey, this is a North Korea blog, and what the country has done makes for some pretty amazing stories. Unfortunately, most are tragedies.

Many express puzzlement at the fact that Japanese policy with respect to North Korea has been hijacked over the last decade by the abduction issue. But Japan’s preoccupation with its 17 (official) abductees is only the tip of a very large iceberg, as demonstrated by an exhaustive but compelling new report by the US Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, written under the direction of Yoshi Yamamoto and released last month.

By far, the two largest categories of abductees are those that occurred during the Korean war and the ethnic Koreans living in Japan who were lured back to the country beginning in the 1960s and then effectively held hostage to their families. These Japanese families continued to support these hostages, even as many were interred in the country’s gulag precisely because of their foreign connections.

The locus classicus on this horrific tale remains Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang; if you have an interest in North Korea and have not read it, shame on you. But there are other entrants into the literature.  John Lie, a sociologist at Berkeley, has written two books on Koreans in Japan, the most recent—Zainichi (Koreans in Japan)—which paints a portrait of a community increasingly estranged from its earlier idealism with respect to the North. By far the most moving account we have seen, though, is Yang Yong-hi’s “Dear Pyongyang” (a YouTube trailer gives you the feel). The documentary film tracks the relationship between Yang and her idealistic father, who essentially exiled his sons to North Korea in the name of his misbegotten ideological commitments. Yang apparently has a new film that continues the story, showing the incredible deprivations involved.

But the Japanese and Korean War abductees are not the end of the story, as the Committee report documents. Over 3800 South Koreans—overwhelmingly fisherman—have also been abducted as well as several hundred Korean Chinese and a smattering of victims from other countries as well; some of these entered the country willingly and then could not leave. The US Committee report demonstrates pretty clearly that these actions were not random but reflected decisions almost certainly taken at the highest level of government, largely with the purpose of providing intelligence and language capabilities to the country.

The incredibly convoluted tale that sparked interest in the issue in Japan has now been translated as North Korea Kidnapped My Daughter by Sakie Yokota. Megumi Yokota was abducted on November 15, 1977 at the age of thirteen and apparently trained North Korean spies to pass as Japanese citizens. In February 1997, Yokota’s parents received information about Megumi’s abduction. In 2002—in apparent act of attrition—Kim Jong Il personally admitted that she and others had been abducted. The admission had virtually the opposite effect intended on Japanese public opinion. Pyongyang claimed that she had committed suicide in 1994 and went so far as to return her cremated remains, only to have a DNA test prove that the remains were bogus. Tokyo and Pyongyang became embroiled in mutual recriminations over who had and hadn’t been abducted and all prospects of normalization were effectively derailed.

In 1986, Yokota had married a South Korean national, Kim Young-nam, who had also probably been abducted, and the couple had a daughter in 1987, Kim Hye-gyong. In June 2006, Kim Young-nam was allowed a family visit from relatives in the South, during which he confirmed Yokota’s suicide after a long history of depression. Many in Japan, however, believe Yokota is still alive fueled by a sensationalist press interest in the story.

An even more strange tale concerns Charles Robert Jenkins. Afraid that he was headed from Korea to Vietnam in 1965, Jenkins deserted from his unit and crossed the Demilitarized Zone. The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea, details his privileged but nonetheless quite miserable house arrest. The nature of his misery was later revealed more clearly by the 2006 film Crossing the Line, which focused on the case of James Dresnok, also a deserter. A classic bully type, Jenkins claimed that Dresnok abused him; after seeing the film, you will see that the claims are highly credible.

Summer reading and viewing, North Korea style.