This essay originally appeared in Japan Focus
July 3, 2008
They 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.
And the story of Charles Robert
Jenkins and his family was one of them.
It was, as he details in his book The
Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year
Imprisonment in North Korea, a life of privileged misery.
Jenkins and his two children followed
shortly thereafter, through a third country.
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?
But 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:
A 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 Korea.
If Jenkins had dictated his story to a
North Korea expert, rather than to journalist Jim Frederick, his
debriefing might have been more illuminating.
He 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
They were, however, subjected to daily propaganda sessions.
This 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 austerity.
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 two children.
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.
The 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 unselfconscious racism.
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.
In a way, UFOlogy resembled Kremlinology:
labored interpretations and heated disagreements based on scant
evidence acquired at considerable remove.
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
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
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.
In short, North Korea in recent decades
has become but a shadow of its former threat.
It 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 North Korea.
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.