Why North Koreans Were Kidnappers

At a six-nation summit on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Japan is pressing Kim Jong-il’s government for more info on the fates of the Japanese abductees who were spirited away to Pyongyang during the Cold War. Why did North Korea kidnap these Japanese citizens?

The Hermit Kingdom—which only acknowledged these kidnappings last year—says the abductees were supposed to school North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs, so the agents could more easily slip into Japanese society. For years, Pyongyang had dismissed the abductions as fictional, part of a smear campaign engineered by South Korea’s Agency for National Security Planning. But on Sept. 17, 2002, as part of efforts to normalize relations with Japan, Kim Jong-il confessed that overzealous elements of his military had in fact snatched 12 Japanese citizens during the 1970s and ‘80s. (The tally was later raised to 13.) He added that the kidnappers had acted without instruction from above and had been punished.

But Kim may not have revealed the whole story. At least one alleged kidnapper claims that several women were abducted to become wives for a group of North Korea-based Japanese terrorists, on the lam after a 1970 Japan Airlines hijacking. An ex-wife of one of the fugitives, a woman named Megumi Yao, has testified that she helped lure a 23-year-old student, Keiko Arimoto, from London to Pyongyang by promising a phony job with a German market-research firm. Arimoto was then reportedly forced to marry one of the hijackers.

Some of the abductees may also have been taken only because they witnessed North Korean commandos sneaking around on Japanese soil. This theory might explain the kidnapping of 13-year-old Megumi Yokota, who disappeared while returning from badminton practice in 1977 and would likely have been of little value as a teacher or a wife.

North Korea has stated that only five of the abductees are still alive; all five have returned to Japan within the past 12 months and are demanding that the families they left behind in North Korea be released, too. As for the eight declared deceased, the victims’ families believe that Pyongyang may be fibbing about their loved ones’ fates. Japan has demanded that the abductees’ remains be returned, but North Korea says that most of the gravesites were destroyed by flooding. The twice-cremated remains of one woman were returned, but DNA tests were inconclusive. However, a dentist who examined some intact teeth from the sample has stated that a match is unlikely. In addition, several groups composed of victims’ families claim that the abductions numbered well above 13 and that between 60 and 100 Japanese people were kidnapped.

Bonus Explainer: North Korean agents didn’t limit their abductions to Japanese. South Korean film directors and actresses were nabbed and ordered to help Kim—a big-time cineaste—produce sweeping celluloid epics. And the family of Charles Robert Jenkins, a U.S. Army soldier alleged to have defected in 1965, contends that he was kidnapped. Jenkins later married a Japanese abductee, Hitomi Soga.