Over the last couple of months, I’ve developed a minor obsession with North Korea. I’ve devoured documentaries (like the excellent Vice documentary) and books (like the amazing Nothing to Envy) and I’m just astounded by this isolated communist country run by a giant manchild (Kim Jong-un).
I’m so fascinated by North Korea because it’s just such a weird place — as Shane Smith from Vice puts it, North Korea is a country where nothing normal happens.
As strange as North Korea is for me as an American, it’s much stranger for North Korea’s neighbor, Japan. While there are some bright spots in the relationship between Japan and North Korea (like a mutual love of sushi and Tokyo Disneyland), most of the relationship is pretty sour.
One thing Japan and North Korea can agree on: roller coasters.
North Koreans, for the most part, hate Japan. Japan occupied the Korean peninsula during the early 20th century, and Japan is close allies with the United States, North Korea’s enemy #1. North Korea talks about the evils of Japan in its propaganda all the time, and every few years the North Koreans threaten to shoot a missile over Japan (though it usually explodes before or during launch).
But what’s scariest of all is the reality of North Korean kidnappings. Over the years, Japanese people have been plucked from their home country and taken to the hermit kingdom. Officially, something like a dozen Japanese people have been kidnapped by the North Koreans; but unofficially, there may be hundreds of Japanese kidnapping victims.
Thanks to a summit between Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and Dear Leader (and expert looker) Kim Jong-il in 2002, five Japanese kidnapping victims, along with their children and spouses, have been repatriated. They’ve been able to bring back with them a glimpse into the twisted inner workings of North Korea and here’s what we know:
Why do North Koreans Kidnap Japanese People?
There are a lot of reasons the North Koreans kidnap people, but it all boils down North Korea’s isolationism. Since North Korea has essentially cut itself off from the rest of the world, the country doesn’t have the kind of trade and immigration to get the kind of things it needs.
But more specifically, there are lots of particular reasons North Koreans kidnap Japanese people.
North Korea has a dire lack of people who are educated in anything but loving the Kim family, so when it comes time to educate your people in say, Japanese language and culture, how do you do it?
In any sane country, you would probably hire a Japanese person with experience in education but in North Korea, where logic doesn’t apply, you kidnap a random Japanese person and force them to teach classes full of military officers, soldiers, and spies.
These teachers, taken from Japan, educate their students on how to speak Japanese and teach them the nuances of Japanese culture so they can blend in to avoid any subtle, Inglourious Basterds-type cultural giveaways.
Probably the weirdest reason North Korea kidnaps Japanese people is to marry other kidnapping victims. Women from all over the world, including Japan, have been kidnapped and taken to North Korea to marry kidnapped men. This was mostly the case for Hitmoi Soga, a Japanese woman who was taken from her hometown when she was just 19.
What’s really messed up about this (as if kidnapping people and essentially forcing them to marry) is that the children of these marriages are usually trained to become North Korean spies from a very young age.
And while the parents of these North-Korean-born foreign children usually try to protect them from the brainwashing and propaganda, these kids don’t really stand a chance.
Some Japanese people have been kidnapped not for their value in North Korea society, but to keep them quiet. Slate reports that’s why Megumi Yokota – who was only 13 years old when she was kidnapped and couldn’t really teach, act, or marry – was taken from Japan by North Korean agents.
Even though the last officially recognized kidnapping was close to 30 years ago, there are almost certainly still Japanese citizens being held captive in North Korea.
We’ll probably never know the true extent of North Korea’s kidnappings until North Korea’s government completely collapses, or North Korea and South Korea reunify.
Even though people have been predicting the imminent failure of the North Korean state for close to 20 years now, I’m really optimistic that I’ll see Korean reunification during my lifetime.
Besides all of the obvious benefits to Korean reunification and the end to the Korean War, it might finally bring some closure and peace to Japanese families of missing people who have been wondering for decades to find out what happened to their loved ones.