This essay originally appeared in Japan Focus
July 3, 2008
were not the type to fabulize simply to draw attention to themselves, so
their story attracted interest beyond the usual UFO fans. Gradually others
came forward with similar tales.
No mainstream media outlet would touch the story. In 1996, a North Korean defector described native Japanese helping to train spies at a North Korean facility, and the abduction narratives gained greater credibility. Still, after Pyongyang launched its Taepodong intermediate-stage rocket over Japan in 1998, most Japanese simply feared North Korea’s conventional and potentially nuclear military threat.
The abduction stories belonged to the past. They were not confirmed.
People disappeared for various reasons: they were killed, they
decamped for overseas, they assumed new identities and took up residence
far from their homes. The Japanese government was portraying North Korea
as a clear and present danger, and this conventional Cold War framework
held sway over the more outlandish version of North Korean perfidy.
North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens. It was as if a UFO had
landed in downtown Tokyo and the earth stood still for the Japanese. A
narrative nurtured by a relatively small group of Japanese, particularly
the families of the disappeared, had turned out to be true.
the story of Charles Robert Jenkins and his family was one of them.
was, as he details in his book The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion,
Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea, a life of
Jenkins and his two children followed shortly thereafter, through a
With a title more fitting for Japan’s culture of apology – Kohuhaku or The Confession – Jenkins’s book in Japanese translation served up a few heartbreaking nuggets of information about Yokota Megumi, the youngest of the Japanese abductees, whom the North Korean government reported as committing suicide in 1994. Jenkins provides no definitive answers to the Megumi mystery – how did she die? how had she lived?
he does relate the abduction story of Hitomi Soga, whom Jenkins
married and lived with for 20 years before they were whisked away from
North Korea in as strange and unexpected a manner as they had arrived.
Fewer still have written about their experiences:
few North Korean defector narratives have appeared in Korean and several
have been translated, most notably Kang Chol-hwan’s Aquariums of
Pyongyang. These books all illuminate small corners of life in North
Jenkins had dictated his story to a North Korea expert, rather than to
journalist Jim Frederick, his debriefing might have been more
joined the Army and came to enjoy the drills and duties. If the rumor of
his unit shipping out to Vietnam had not touched his deepest fears, he
would have likely become career military. So, on reaching North Korea, he
was not the type to grouse about a little hardship. But he faced a good
deal more than standard hardship.
They were, however, subjected to daily propaganda sessions.
crash course in ideology enabled the four to catch up to average North
Koreans, who had been studying the precepts of North Korean communism,
more precisely Kim Il-Sungism, all their lives. There are
occasional descents into greater hardship – for instance, when a North
Korean doctor removes Jenkins’ U.S. Army tattoo without anesthesia – but
for the most part the story is of drudgery and boredom and workaday
After several ill-fated attempts to escape, he and his compatriots
eventually resign themselves to getting by. They teach English, work on a
military dictionary, translate lines from English-language movies, even
star in North Korean movies when Western actors are needed. Ultimately
they become citizens. They are rewarded for their good behavior not by
reduced sentences but with conjugal visits. Each is matched with another
foreigner. Jenkins, 40 years old in 1980, is introduced to the 20-year-old
Soga Hitomi, and, after some initial wariness, they are married and have
As the food crisis sets in during the mid-1990s, Jenkins and his family must take shifts to guard their corn plot to prevent pilfering from thieves.
One day, a soldier comes to the door and asks for food.
school where they send their two children demands that all students bring
supplies: a kilo of lead, rabbit skins. And then, of course, there is the
omnipresent nationalism that shapes North Korea more deeply than communism
ever did. Jenkins and the soldiers are paired off with foreigners, for
their blood must not be allowed to taint the “pure” Korean population.
Similar sentiments can be found among some in South Korea, but the version
of ethno-nationalism that persists in the North embodies a much more
As Jenkins struggles with the choice to leave the country to visit his wife in a third country – he worries that he’ll end up in a U.S. brig if he gets out or in a North Korean prison if he doesn’t – his North Korean minder leans over to say quietly to him:
A few intriguing details aside, Jenkins’ narrative provides no unexpected revelations about North Korea. His story corresponds to what we more or less know about the country.
There is only one part of the story that is controversial. Jenkins alleges that one of his American compatriots, Joseph Dresnok, beat him 30 times over a 7-year period. In the first one, and presumably some that followed, a North Korean cadre bound Jenkins’s hands behind his back and instructed Dresnok to administer the beating. For reasons that Jenkins still can’t fully fathom, Dresnok complied willingly.
In the documentary Crossing the Line, which features interviews with Dresnok in Pyongyang, the last American deserter left in North Korea denies the charges.
The abduction aficionados found what they were looking for: earlier cases in Brazil, in France, elsewhere in the United States. As the cases multiplied, different camps also emerged, for now there were competing narratives to reconcile – what did the aliens look like, where did they come from, were they having sex with their human captives? Also, too, there were a range of different explanations for the phenomenon, from the literal to the psychological to the mythic.
way, UFOlogy resembled Kremlinology: labored interpretations and
heated disagreements based on scant evidence acquired at considerable
North Korea is still a black box, at least in terms of the actions and motivations of the leadership.
Some basic facts also remain unclear, for instance the number of abductees.
North Korea is rumored to have informed the United States of several Japanese abductees it has hitherto denied, and expressed willingness to send them home. But there remains a gap between the 15 or so that North Korea might admit to, the 36 on the “strongly suspect” list of the Japanese government, and the much larger list of the abductee organizations.
Controversies continue to rage over the documentation that North Korea provided – death certificates, traffic accident reports – as well as over the purported remains of Megumi Yokota. The Japanese authorities have asserted that the bones delivered by the North Koreans are not those of the young woman, but other independent assessments, notably a report in the journal Nature, suggest that the Japanese scientific assessment methods are flawed.
Meanwhile, Jenkins provides tantalizing glimpses of abductees from
other countries – a Thai woman, a Romanian woman, people from Hong Kong
that he is sure were “snatched.”
South Korea, which lists a far greater number of its citizens abducted by the North, has tiptoed around the issue, though associations of victim families are trying to emulate their Japanese counterparts in forcing a shift in the new Lee Myung Bak government.
Meanwhile, in the United States, conservatives are aghast that the
Bush administration – and presidential candidate Barack
Obama – failed to link the removal of North Korea from the State
Sponsors of Terrorism list to the case of Kim Dong-Sik. The North
Korean government allegedly abducted Kim in 2000. The case remains so far
below the media and political radar in the United States to be almost
non-existent (the same can be said oft the alleged abduction of another
American citizen, actress Susan Richardson, which the media really
does treat like an UFO abduction story).
Most painful of all for the Japanese government has been the U.S. indifference to the abduction issue in the late June decision to remove North Korea from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list as part of the Six Party Talks.
U.S. negotiators in these talks pledged their support for Japan’s position even as they refused to allow the issue to block resolution of the nuclear issue. South Korea has focused on economic cooperation with North Korea. The United States and Russia are focused on denuclearization. Only Tokyo has made its relationship with Pyongyang contingent on a resolution of the abduction issue.
Representatives of the abductee families blasted the Fukuda
government for its failure to persuade the United States to link the
abduction issue to removal of North Korea from the terrorism list;
opposition leader Ozawa Ichiro echoed their sentiments but laid the blame
directly on Washington.
Like their U.S. neoconservative counterparts, Japanese neonationalists have long been angling to shift the country’s international orientation. The abduction issue is their September 11. It has been an opportunity to assert victimhood, to dust off plans to drive up defense spending, and embark on a new brand of militarism that (at least for the time being) functions within the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
Koizumi, for all his post-modern flourishes, was committed to this
project, his successor Abe even more so.
It took a shot at the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. It sent military trainers, development money, and propaganda to various Third World countries. Its abductions were not so much acts of desperation as part of an asymmetrical campaign to best South Korea and establish a leading role in international affairs. That North Korea was indeed a mysterious and powerful force that sent emissaries to Japan to extract its citizens for its own purposes. But that North Korea no longer exists.
Jenkins, in his occasional asides, tells the story of this decline.
short, North Korea in recent decades has become but a shadow of its former
asserted a powerful threat at a time when a full-scale demonization of
Beijing was problematic in the context of growing Japanese-Chinese
economic cooperation. Even the gaps in the abduction narrative were
helpful for, like a good mystery novel, the audience in Japan hung on to
each new installment to learn the answers to the remaining riddles.
Perhaps that is why current Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo
feels more comfortable showing flexibility on the abduction issue than his
predecessors, Koizumi and Abe. Fukuda has resumed bilateral negotiations
with North Korea, and extracted a surprise promise from Pyongyang to
reinvestigate what it had previously declared was a closed issue. In
return, Japan has promised to partially lift sanctions if this new inquiry
makes progress. This might also open the way for Japan to provide food aid
during what is shaping up to be a second major agricultural crisis for
But Pyongyang will have helped to create, with its abductions, exactly the opposite of what it wanted: a Japan unshackled from its recent pacifist past and armed to the teeth.