Kidnapping of foreign nationals is yet another of many crimes yet to be repudiated by the North Korean regime.
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Most of the ethnic Koreans — to this day treated as second class citizens in Japan — who returned home went south. But the DPRK “continually played up the homeland’s need for individuals with knowledge and abilities,” explained Kang Chol-hwan, the grandson of a returnee. The effort started well, with some 50,000 people heading north from late 1959 to 1960.
“Rumors of harsh treatment in North Korea, however, began to leak out immediately,” wrote Yamamoto. The number of migrants dropped precipitously, though the Returnees Project formally continued through 1984, during which more than 93,000 Japanese moved to the North. Most found their choice to be irrevocable.
About 3,800 South Koreans were abducted, most of them fishermen grabbed on the high seas. North Korean warships would simply capture ROK vessels and hold their crews. Some fishermen were released over the years, but as of 2010 Yamamoto estimated that 450 were still held captive in the North, along with 56 other South Koreans.
Pyongyang also targeted South Koreans active in China aiding refugees. In 2000 regime agents abducted Kim Dong-shik, a minister, with the aid of an ethnic Korean-Chinese businessman. One of the most celebrated kidnapping cases involved the seizure of South Korean movie star Choi Eun-hee and later her husband, director Shin Sang-ok. They were abducted separately and were met by Kim Jong-il, a movie aficionado who wanted to create a world-class North Korean film industry. Ultimately they were trusted to travel abroad, when they fled their minders.
At least 100 Japanese were kidnapped by DPRK operatives. These cases may be the most poignant since the victims had nothing to do with Korea. Among the cases reported by Yamamoto:
1. “On the afternoon of November 15, 1977, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota was walking home from badminton practice at her high schools in Niigata when she was seized by North Korean operatives.”
2. “Yasushi Chimura and his fiancée, Fukie Hamamoto, both 23, were abducted from rocky shores of Wakasa Bay in Obama, Japan, on the evening of July 7, 1978. The young couple [was] on a date when they were attacked by North Korean operatives and forced into a nearby boat.”
3. On August 12, 1978, 19-year-old Hitomi Soga and her 46-year-old mother, Miyoshi, were kidnapped from Sado City. “The two had stopped for ice cream on the way home from shopping when they were suddenly accosted by three men who quickly bound and gagged them.”
In most cases the victims simply disappeared, leaving their families with no idea what happened.
Occasionally Pyongyang attracted its victims by fraud rather than force. Regime operatives offered employment, academic opportunities, art exhibitions, and translation jobs to a variety of foreigners, including from France, Guinea, Japan, Lebanon, Romania, and South Korea. Often people thought they were going somewhere other than North Korea — to Hong Kong, for instance — but ended up in the DPRK. Some knew they were being hired by the North Korean government and were not allowed to leave.
Even Chinese citizens are at risk. Explained Yamamoto: “In an effort to target the underground refugee network, North Korea has abducted over two hundred citizens of the People’s Republic of China.” These operations have the dual benefit of eliminating those who aid defectors and discouraging others from offering assistance. Although this practice obviously violates Chinese sovereignty, Beijing “has never filed any official complaints against North Korea, as it is said to view the abductions as a problem between Koreans rather than a national or humanitarian problem.”
Finally, there were occasional defectors from other nations who fled to the North but then were prevented from leaving. Japanese “Red Army” terrorists hijacked a Japanese airplane and sought asylum in the North. Four American soldiers deserted through the Demilitarized Zone. Their story has been told by Charles Jenkins, who was released a decade ago along with his wife, who had been kidnapped from Japan. As he explained, “once you step in, most people never could get out.”
Their treatment depended on their perceived usefulness to the regime and how they responded to their new lives. Those kidnapped were always reeducated, generally isolated, usually mistreated, and sometimes imprisoned. Many were forced into marriages, sometimes with other abductees. But even those treated relatively well in a material sense, such as the movie couple Choi and Shin, lost their freedom. Observed Yamamoto: “they found themselves trapped in a world where they were no longer free to make fundamental decisions over their own lives.”
Of course, since the Kim dynasty treats North Korea’s entire population as slaves, the regime has no compunction about kidnapping foreigners. Some South Koreans were used as spies. A number of the abducted Japanese “had special expertise in telecommunications, printing, and physics,” according to a commission on those seized.
However, most of the Japanese were used to teach North Koreans the Japanese language and culture. A few abductions apparently were conducted to steal identities for further operations. Several victims were used in North Korean propaganda. Other apparent objectives included stealing registration documents, finding spouses for other abductees, and silencing regime opponents.
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