North Korea's abductions of foreign nationals
'71 Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korean Special Agents'
Sebastian Coles-Saffirio | 5 December 2018

From 1977-1983, 71 Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korean Special Agents, in and around Japan. Pyongyang has since admitted to having abducted at least 17 citizens, and freed five of those captured in the years following. These facts raise the questions: why did this happen and what happened to the potential 500 other Japanese men and women who disappeared in mysterious conditions? Dubbed by some as ‘Japan’s 9/11’, the event shook the nation and left a stain between the relations between North Korea’s limping Kim dynasty and the Japanese people. It was, however, not an exclusively Japanese problem. Accounts from both former spies who worked within the regime, and the testimonies of those released, around 28 foreigners were also abducted, including a 28 year old Romanian, Doina Bumbea, and an American deserter, Charles Jenkins, held in North Korea against his will for 39 years, finally crossing the DMZ in 1965.  

In the 1970s, as the Kim dynasty’s grip on power tightened, the founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-Sung, named his son, Kim Jong Il as his successor. At the time, Kim Jong Il’s greatest aim was to incite a rebellion in the South and reunify the two Koreas, ripped apart by war some 20 years prior. However, due to the increasing security in the South, direct espionage became far harder. Therefore, an order was issued to “reduce infiltration from the North [and to] increase the infiltration into South Korea via Japan.”, eventually becoming a key strategy for North Korea.  

According to Mitsuhiro Suganuma, former director of the Japanese Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA), who led the counter-espionage effort, and several high-profile North Korean spies who defected to the South, the key aim for the North Korean spies was to pass unnoticed into South Korea, to learn the Japanese language, their culture, and their comportment, in order to avoid arrest. The regime argued that the spies should assume the victim’s identity, and at one point even considered using the victims themselves as agents.  

The youngest of the victims was Megumi Yokota, aged 13 at the time, kidnapped on her way back from badminton practice in 1977; her fate was unknown for 20 years. In 1997, however, the shocking truth was finally revealed by a former North Korean spy that she had in fact been kidnapped and transported by boat to the North. The heart-breaking testimony reveals that as she called out for help, she was thrown down into the hull of the boat, clawing at the door until her hands bled. Her parents, Shigeru and Sakie, are perhaps the most recognisable faces of the movement which is desperately attempting to return victims to their families. They founded the “Japanese National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea” in 1997, and over the course of 35 years have made over 1400 public appearances, even meeting US President George W. Bush, as well as former abductee Hitomi Soga, who knew Megumi well. Hitomi Soga was abducted in 1978 along with her mother Miyoshi, who claims to have been followed by 2 men who then sedated her and put her in a bag. Although freed in 2002, along with 4 others, she is unwilling to talk about her experience as a prisoner, for 24 years, of the North Korean regime. While captive she met Charles Jenkins, whom she married in 1980.  

Jenkins, a former US soldier, fled to North Korea in the 1960s, so that he could avoid conscription for the Vietnam War. Almost immediately he was detained, along with 3 other Americans for 7 years, and recounts that he was forced to study the Juche Philosophy of Kim Il Sung for up to 17 hours a day, while being subject to routine beatings, and intimidation from the North Korean guards. Upon his release in 2004, he confirmed that there were other captured foreigners, including a Thai national and a Romanian, Doina Bumbea. Doina, originally from Craiova, later moved to Rome to pursue her passion for painting. It was an exhibition in Tokyo, however, that proved to be her last, remaining a prisoner of the North Koreans for 19 years, until her death in 1997. In addition to this, there were yet more foreigners captured, including 4 Lebanese women, who were freed as a result of their government’s tireless efforts in 1979, 3 French citizens, 2 Italians, and 3 Dutch citizens, with many more, mostly women, unknown about. 

The situation is dire for the families of those abducted, most still being alive, in their 80s and 90s. In December 2017, a 90-year-old mother who had waited 39 years for her daughter to return, finally passed away. This tragic event has given a new-found determination for campaigners and lawmakers that their sons and daughters be returned as soon as possible. If the parents of the victims all die, further strains would be put on North Korea’s relations with the respective governments, both from the humanitarian perspective, and politically, due to North Korea’s increasing reliance on foreign support, while international sanctions weaken the Kim Dynasty’s grip on power. 

Origial image by Lewis Bushell 

James Routledge 2016