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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.

Education

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.

Marriage

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.

Photo by Chang K. Kim

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.

Silence

Photo by bmhkim

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.

Read more: Why North Koreans Were Kidnappers, 10 years after, former abductees still trying to erase the horrors of North Korea, Soga calls for abductees’ return

  • Lorenzo

    Please, please, please make more posts about North-Korea. I’m totally obsessed with the country! :D

  • 古戸ヱリカ

    What? No mention of The Adventures of Kim Jong Un? The punishment for that is death by scorpions.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f37K0hIv3zk&feature=relmfu

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    If I can relate it back to Japan, I definitely will!

  • ZXNova

    North Korea, wtf is wrong with you? Why can’t all just get along…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1833344687 Julia Kolb

    few years ago i had this obsession with north korea and watched every documentary i could find on the web. it all seems like some mad sci-fi movie and the fascinating thing is, that it actually is real..

  • Allicrab’s Messenger

    Koichi, please take care of yourself. I think Kim might see how valuable you are to teach Japanese and he might try to kidnap you. :(
    Same advice for Hashi and Viet!

  • HorrorChan

    Doesn’t the NK government have a website that says in the Q&A section that you can’t go there to teach or was it a parody site? Either way, I can’t remember the URL.

  • DAVIDPD

    N. Korea is a bad place. I mean, have you seen there hamburgers?

  • http://twitter.com/fuguzen Ryohei Fukuda

    North Korea maybe exported to Iran the missile technology. Also they gave Matsutake to Japan’s former prime minister Jyunichiro Koizumi to make up for the kidnapping.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I would definitely not eat those Matsutake, haha.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Shhh, don’t give him any ideas. I would not do well. These hands are too soft!!! D:

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Why can’t this be a real show?? Amazing.

  • WhiteRice

    I forgot how fascinated I used to be about North Korea. I watched the American symphony on CNN when they went to play in North Korea,I believe for the first time ever. When I read “manchild”, I thought that was a perfect description of the leaders, but they also remind me of over sized babies, although sumo wrestlers do too. Overall, this is a very interesting post. I never knew they kidnapped people from Japan, which begs to question, is Japan the only country they kidnap people in? Are we safe? O_0

  • Jon

    . . .And I thought I was a bit insane.

    I think North Korea has easily gotten to the point of ‘most insane country in history’ by now. It would have been nice if they had at least kidnapped psychologists/psychiatrists (I always forget the difference) instead of random little girls, though. At least then something useful might happen.

  • WhiteRice

    Psychiatrists can prescribe medicine because they went to medical school. Psychologists can’t.

  • http://twitter.com/fuguzen Ryohei Fukuda

    As far as I know, they kidnapped people from South Korea and from some other countries of Asia and Europe, too. And also, some US solders had been detained by them. But it isn’t identified that was either kidnapping or defection. One of US solders is a returned Japanese victim’s husband.

  • hana

    Hashi, I too have been fascinated with NK of late!! I read “Nothing to Envy” and have been watching lots of YouTube videos. Last night I finished “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a novel by Adam Johnson – I think you’ve gotta read it! I’m going to look into “Vice.”

  • SaraWyatt

    Don’t forget Lisa Ling’s reporter sister, Laura. I think she entered by her own free will, but they decided not to let her out until her sis started making noise on Oprah’s couch.

  • SaraWyatt

    I saw on some documentary like 8 or so years ago that they were all malnourished and starving and that the government puts sawdust into the food rations as filler. :

  • http://twitter.com/hikosaemon Hikosaemon

    One of the saddest things about this whole thing is that for decades, the Japanese left (the SDP, of which Naoto Kan was originally a member, was the sister party of the North Korean worker’s party well into the 90s) and groups representing the 350,000 North Korean residents mocked the suggestions of kidnapping, because of course if the North Koreans wanted teachers in Japanese culture for any purpose, including spying, they could easily just ask one of the hundreds of thousands of loyal indoctrinated North Koreans born in Japan to help.

    So you can imagine their disillusionment, having stood up for the regime for decades to deny kidnappings, at hearing that the whole thing was real. Apparently it caused a landslide of applications for naturalization from North Korean residents of Japan seeking to finally become Japanese, and to stop paying tithes/taxes to the Chosen Soren. Takako Doi came out the worst from all this – she not only publicly called NK a “paradise on earth” during the 90s, but when the family of Keiko Arimoto (one of the abductees DPRK now says is dead) sought her help with a letter that their daughter had smuggled out of NK, Doi accused them of being right wing extremists and liars. Five years later, the government their said she was dead. Awful stuff.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, the food situation in North Korea is pretty bad. It was a lot worse in the 90s, but it’s pretty safe to assume that a lot of North Koreans are still underfed and malnourished. Sad stuff.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I hadn’t heard of The Orphan Master’s Son before, I’ll check it out!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    North Korea has kidnapped people from all over the world, but as far as I can tell it’s scaled back the kidnappings a lot in recent years.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Correction: they didn’t let her out until Bill F’in Clinton went to North Korea and laid down the law.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    “Sorry for systematically kidnapping your citizens! Here, have some mushrooms.”

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Wow, I hadn’t heard anything about Japanese left’s responses to North Korea, that’s crazy. It’s mind-boggling to me that people outside of North Korea can support the DPRK.

    Educational, as always Hiko!

  • lychalis

    I think after hearing about an NK Officer’s execution by mortar, its unlikely that anything I hear about North Korea will surprise me.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Yeah, that was . . . nuts, to say the least.

  • Liz

    I’ve also had a obsession with North Korea. I watched everything I could and I have several books including “Nothing to Envy” “Escape from Camp 14″ “Aquariums of Pyongyang” and a couple others, the titles escape my memory right now. Have you seen Pulgasari? Amazing! I have a ton of North Korean cinema, and I’ve watched every documentary that I could get my hands on! The Kidnapping of Megumi Yokota is heart wrenching! I donate money to LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) to try and help get refugees out! I hope things change for the North Korean people.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I’m actually writing something about Pulgasari for later this week :)

  • SaraWyatt

    Oh my. Thanks. How could I have forgotten that. I remember thinking Bill was such a G. for pulling that off. ;)

  • Gabriel

    North Korea can be regarded as a strange place and certainly even a bad place to be (famine, oppression). But modern society that thinks it is better or less strange merely thinks this thought through the delusion of its own deep and disturbing madness.