Review of Robert Boynton, The Invitation-Only Zone (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 271 pages
The abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean government is so fantastical a story that it seems to be the stuff of magical realism. It’s not surprising that so many Japanese refused for so long to believe that North Korean agents snatched 17 or more of their fellow citizens in the 1970s and 1980s and spirited them to North Korea to serve the nefarious aims of the government. It sounded like a warning that a harried mother would use to discipline a wayward child: if you don’t behave, mysterious men will take you away, subject you to horrendous privations, and never let you go.
But there was nothing magical about what happened to Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend Yukiko Okudo. On July 13, 1978, they were hanging out one night on the beach at Kashiwazaki, a coastal town 140 miles north of Tokyo. Suddenly, four men attacked the couple and stuffed them into separate canvas sacks. Because it took place on an isolated part of the beach, no one saw the abduction. The couple was loaded onto a boat and transported to North Korea.
It was nearly two years later before Kaoru and Yukiko saw each other again. They’d both gone through language training and rigorous ideological education. To reunite and be allowed to marry was the first bright sign in an otherwise painful and dreary experience. Like the other abductees from Japan, they led lives of isolation and ideological conformity. Ironically, and they would only later appreciate the fact, Kaoru and Yukiko also were treated like elite. They lived in a house in one of many “invitation-only zones” that functioned like gated communities outside the major cities. They received regular food allotments, even during the famine that struck the country in the mid-1990s. Their jobs were not strenuous – mostly teaching Japanese and translating articles. Their children danced in the Mass Games. They even formed a friendship with another abducted Japanese couple. But they could never escape the feeling of being strangers in a strange land.
The story of Kaoru and Yukiko is the backbone of Robert Boynton’s book, The Invitation-Only Zone, which tries to understand why North Korea made the abduction of foreigners a key element of its foreign policy. There have been other accounts of this malign program. Charles Robert Jenkins, a U.S. soldier who crossed over to North Korea and then married a Japanese abductee, has provided a first-person account of his travails. The story of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese girl abducted at the age of thirteen and who allegedly died in North Korea, has been recounted at length in book form and in a celebrated documentary. But Boynton’s book is the first to try to make sense of the abductions in a larger historical, political, and cultural context.
Boynton has chosen a powerful story to frame his narrative. It enables him to discuss the background of North Korean policy, the fraught relationship between Korea and Japan, and the tense negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang that led eventually to the repatriation of several of the abductees, including Kaoru and Yukiko and their children. He delves into the history of the “comfort women,” the women that the Japanese military drafted into sexual slavery during World War II. He explains the anti-Japanese philosophy that animated Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla activities during World War II and his subsequent government policies. He traces the development of North Korean politics through the family succession that brought first Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, and then his grandson, Kim Jong Un, to power.
Even for readers already familiar with the northern half of the Korean peninsula, The Invitation-Only Zone provides a couple more tiles to the mosaic of North Korean society as understood outside the country. But perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is its description of how the unfolding drama of the abductions gripped Japanese society in the 2000s, particularly as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi began to negotiate with Kim Jong Il for the release of the abductees. Five of those abductees, including Kaoru and Yukiko, returned to Japan in 2002, with the understanding that they would return to North Korea. They didn’t. Their two children joined them in 2004.
Kim Jong Il’s acknowledgment of the abduction program created a surge of anti-North Korean sentiment in Japanese society. More surprisingly, perhaps, it created a backlash against the very people who negotiated the release of the abductees. As Boynton writes, “Hitoshi Tanaka, the diplomat who negotiated the abductees’ freedom, was labeled a ‘Class-A war criminal’ and accused of being ‘soft’ on North Korea by the magazine Shukan Bunshun. One morning, a bomb was discovered in front of his home, accompanied by an envelope addressed to ‘Hitoshi Tanaka, traitor.’ When asked what he thought of the attack, the conservative Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara said Tanaka ‘got what he deserved.’” Even negotiating with Pyongyang for the release of Japanese citizens elicited accusations of collaboration with the enemy.
Indeed, the abductee issue galvanized the most nationalist-oriented segment of the Japanese political elite, providing a cudgel for rising politician Shinzo Abe to use against his opponents. Taking a hardline stance against North Korea joined the denial of historic crimes like the rape of Nanking and the pledge to undo the “peace constitution” as essential elements of a right-wing extremist agenda that was becoming, under Abe’s guidance, increasingly mainstream in Japan.
Because of its focus on the Japanese abductees, Boynton doesn’t devote much space to other abductions, particularly those of South Koreans. Most of those took place during the Korean War. There have also been an estimated 4,000 abductions of South Koreans since 1953, primarily fishermen but also five high school students. A book about those abductions would make for an interesting sequel to what is an invaluable account of one of the most egregious methods that North Korea developed to deal with a hostile world.
Korean Quarterly, Winter 2017