The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

by Robert S. Boynton
The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

by Robert S. Boynton



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A bizarre, little-known tale about the most secretive culture on earth

For decades, North Korea denied any part in the disappearance of dozens of Japanese citizens from Japan’s coastal towns and cities in the late 1970s. But in 2002, with his country on the brink of collapse, Kim Jong-il admitted to the kidnapping of thirteen people and returned five of them in hopes of receiving Japanese aid. As part of a global espionage project, the regime had attempted to reeducate these abductees and make them spy on its behalf. When the scheme faltered, the captives were forced to teach Japanese to North Korean spies and make lives for themselves, marrying, having children, and posing as North Korean civilians in guarded communities known as “Invitation-Only Zones”—the fiction being that they were exclusive enclaves, not prisons.

From the moment Robert S. Boynton saw a photograph of these men and women, he became obsessed with their story. Torn from their homes as young adults, living for a quarter century in a strange and hostile country, they were returned with little more than an apology from the secretive regime.

In The Invitation-Only Zone, Boynton untangles the bizarre logic behind the abductions. Drawing on extensive interviews with the abductees, Boynton reconstructs the story of their lives inside North Korea and ponders the existential toll the episode has had on them, and on Japan itself. He speaks with nationalists, spies, defectors, diplomats, abductees, and even crab fishermen, exploring the cultural and racial tensions between Korea and Japan that have festered for more than a century.

A deeply reported, thoroughly researched book, The Invitation-Only Zone is a riveting story of East Asian politics and of the tragic human consequences of North Korea’s zealous attempt to remain relevant in the modern world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374712662
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/12/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 288
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Robert S. Boynton’s journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications. He is the author of The New New Journalism and directs the Literary Reportage program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
Robert S. Boynton's journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. He is the author of The New New Journalism and directs the Literary Reportage program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

Read an Excerpt

The Invitation-Only Zone

The True Story of North Korea's Abduction Project

By Robert S. Boynton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Robert S. Boynton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71266-2



On the evening of July 13, 1978, Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, rode bikes to the summer fireworks festival at the Kashiwazaki town beach. The cool night air felt good against their skin as they whisked down the winding lanes of the coastal farming village 140 miles north of Tokyo. They parked their bikes by the public library and made their way past the crowd of spectators to a remote stretch of sand. It was a new moon, and the fireworks looked spectacular against the black sky. As the first plumes rose, Kaoru noticed four men nearby. Cigarette in hand, one of them approached the couple and asked for a light. As Kaoru reached into his pocket, the four attacked, gagging and blindfolding the couple and binding their hands and legs with rubber restraints. "Keep quiet and we won't hurt you," one of the assailants promised. Confined to separate canvas sacks, Kaoru and Yukiko were loaded onto an inflatable raft. Peering through the sack's netting, Kaoru caught a glimpse of the warm, bright lights of Kashiwazaki City fading into the background. An hour later he was transferred to a larger ship idling offshore. The agents forced him to swallow several pills: antibiotics to prevent his injuries from becoming infected, a sedative to put him to sleep, and medicine to relieve seasickness. When he awoke the next evening, he was in Chongjin, North Korea. Yukiko was nowhere in sight, and his captors told Kaoru she had been left behind in Japan.

With his fashionably shaggy hair and ready smile, the twenty-year-old Kaoru Hasuike impressed those who met him as a young man who was going places. Like much of his generation in Japan, he wasn't interested in politics and knew almost nothing about Korea, North or South. Cocky and intelligent, he was at the top of his class at Tokyo's prestigious Chuo University. Yukiko, twenty-two, the daughter of a local rice farmer, was a beautician for Kanebo, one of Japan's leading cosmetics companies. She and Kaoru had been dating for a year, and he planned to propose once he finished his law degree. Japan's economy was surging ahead, and the future looked bright. He'd get a job at a corporation; they'd move from Kashiwazaki to Tokyo and build a life together. That was the plan, anyway.

The overnight train from Chongjin to Pyongyang was extremely bumpy, and by the time Kaoru arrived in the North Korean capital the next morning he was furious. "This is a violation of human rights and international law! You must return me to Japan immediately!" he shouted. His abductor watched calmly as Kaoru vented. When Kaoru saw that confrontation wasn't working, he tried evoking sympathy. "You have to understand that my parents are in ill health," he explained. Their condition would worsen if they worried about him. Surely his abductors could understand that?

The abductor listened to Kaoru's tirade in silence. "You know," he said, pausing for effect, "if you want to die, this is a good way to do it." He spoke in the flat, matter-of-fact way of one for whom such encounters were routine. He explained to Kaoru that the reason he had been abducted was to help reunify the Korean Peninsula, the sacred duty of every North Korean citizen. After all the pain his Japanese forefathers had inflicted on Korea, the man continued, it was the least that Kaoru, who had benefited from his country's rapacious colonial exploits, could do. Precisely how Kaoru would hasten reunification was left ambiguous, although the abductor hinted that he would train spies to pass as Japanese, and perhaps become a spy himself. The good news was that so long as Kaoru worked hard and obediently, he would eventually be returned to Japan.

The abductor saved his most astounding claim for last. Far from suffering from having been abducted, Kaoru would ultimately benefit. "You see, once the peninsula is unified under the command of General Kim Il-sung, a beautiful new era will begin," he explained. North Korean socialism would spread throughout Asia, including Japan. "And when that glorious day comes, we Koreans will live in peace. And you will return to Japan, where your experiences here will help you secure a position at the very top of the new Japanese regime!" Kaoru couldn't believe his ears. How could anyone make such preposterous statements?

While North Korea today is one of the poorest, most isolated nations on earth, when Kaoru was abducted in 1978, it was one of the most admired and prosperous Communist regimes in Asia. In 1960 the North's income per capita was twice that of the South's. Despite being nearly obliterated by American bombs during the Korean War, the industrial North had enormous advantages over agrarian South Korea, having inherited 75 percent of the peninsula's coal, phosphate, and iron mines, and 90 percent of its electricity-generating capacity. So equipped, the North's economy grew by 25 percent per year in the decade following the Korean War. In 1975 the North exported 328,000 tons of rice and corn. The military dictatorship in South Korea, by comparison, was a basket case, its economy so far behind that its American backers feared it would never catch up. The bitter irony for Kaoru was that 1978 was precisely the year South and North Korea traded places, the former on its way to becoming a global economic powerhouse and the latter beginning its descent into destitution and even famine. In other words, it was the last point in history when the North's political and economic system was thought to be so self-evidently superior that its spies could snatch people off beaches, show them the glories of the North Korean revolution, and assume they would join the struggle.

* * *

Born in 1957, Kaoru Hasuike had a blissfully innocent childhood. Overlooking the Sea of Japan, Kashiwazaki was largely rural farmland at the time, and he and his older brother, Toru, would fish for carp, catfish, and snake heads in the Betsuyama River, which ran behind their house. The brothers were extremely close, and Toru's advanced knowledge of music and fashion helped Kaoru cultivate an aura of cool, worldly sophistication. An obedient, well-behaved child, Kaoru was captain of the baseball team and a student at the top of his class. Like so many creative, bright students of his generation, he grew more rebellious and bohemian, singing rock music and wearing hole-riddled jeans. In 1974, when Kaoru moved to Tokyo to attend university, the brothers shared an apartment. One day, Kaoru, ever careless, dropped a lit cigarette on a brand-new rug. Without pausing, he simply shifted a flowerpot to cover the smoldering hole. "He shot me that 'Aren't I clever?' look and lit up another cigarette," says Toru. "Kaoru had it all figured out."

Now a captive and with no one to commiserate with, Kaoru was desperately lonely. Although he didn't have a religious background, he tried praying, placing his palms together and pressing them to his eyes. This display of piety elicited ridicule from his captors, because in North Korean movies the only characters who prayed were the cowardly Japanese prisoners begging for mercy. Not even sleep provided an escape, as Kaoru's dreams were filled with fantastical versions of his nightmarish days. "I had a recurring dream that some of my friends from back home in Kashiwazaki had been abducted and taken to North Korea, just like me," he says. "In the dream I'd see them and say, 'Oh no, they got you too?'"

A few months after arriving in Pyongyang, where he was kept in an apartment, Kaoru realized he was probably stuck there for the foreseeable future, the secretive regime not being in the habit of releasing witnesses to its espionage operations. He was certain that nobody in Japan knew what had happened to him, so he didn't expect any search parties or diplomatic missions to secure his release. Escape was impossible; three "minders" monitored him twenty-four hours a day, each taking an eight-hour shift. And even if he somehow managed to slip past them, where would he go? It wasn't as if he could count on receiving help from ordinary North Koreans, who would surely turn him in. The stories he heard about those who had tried to escape weren't encouraging. The regime had once assigned two military units, three thousand men in all, to capture an abductee who had managed to slip away. Kaoru wondered if he might be able to get help from one of the few Western embassies in Pyongyang. Then he heard about a female detainee who was forcibly removed from an embassy where she had sought asylum — a violation of international law. Kaoru took stock of his options. He was too young to give up on life, no matter how bizarre the circumstances. "As long as I didn't know the reason for my abduction, or what was going to happen to me, I felt that I couldn't just die like this," he says. But how could he survive, cut off from everyone he loved and everything he knew?

Kaoru was given access to a restricted library that held a collection of Japanese-language books about North Korea. Japan's postwar educational system dealt superficially with the period during which it colonized Korea and much of Asia, so most of what Kaoru was learning was news to him. He was surprised to find out that North Korea had a large following of international sympathizers, many of them in Japan. He read about the wartime exploits of Kim Il-sung's anti-Japanese insurgency, and the lengths to which ordinary Koreans had gone to resist the Japanese. "After some time, I had to admit that the people of this land had fought bravely against Japanese colonialism. I was able to rationally separate the troubled history of the Korean people from my forceful abduction," he says.

Over and over, Kaoru's captors told him he was in North Korea to help right the wrongs of his Japanese colonial forebears. His minders regaled him with accounts of how Japanese soldiers had raped Korean women, dragooned men into slave labor, and generally humiliated Korea's ancient civilization. "I was horrified by what they told me. I didn't doubt it was true, but I didn't know what it had to do with me," he says. Coming from the quiescent seventies generation of young Japanese, Kaoru had seldom heard history discussed with such vitriol. How had Japanese-Korean relations gotten to the point that, thirty years after the end of World War II, Koreans were so filled with hatred toward the Japanese that they talked about them as if they were a different species? How had the two cultures developed such a twisted relationship?



The problems between Japan and Korea began long before 1910, when the former annexed the latter into its burgeoning empire. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 set Japan on the course to modernize its economy and culture in order to avoid being colonized by the West, and the two themes of modernization (renewing oneself) and colonization (ruling another) were thereafter intertwined. Forty years later, Japan imposed upon Korea the same practices it had adopted. It used the Western pseudoscience of racial classification to legitimize its actions, arguing that Japan and Korea's ancient racial kinship fated them to reconnect. As non-Western colonizers, the Japanese faced a dilemma: Could a classification scheme that white colonizers had deployed to distinguish themselves from the distant, darker colonized be applied to a nearby and similarly hued people? In other words, could a theory that bound Japan to Korea be construed to justify rule over it? Japan's answer — a brew of racial reasoning and military power — enabled it to build one of the largest empires of the twentieth century, and has poisoned relations between the two cultures to this day.

* * *

Japan had largely closed itself off to the outside world for two hundred years when U.S. Navy commodore Matthew Perry navigated the Susquehanna, a black-hulled steam frigate, into Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. He carried a simple message from President Millard Fillmore: if Japan didn't open its ports to U.S. merchant ships, Perry would return in a year, with more ships, and take Tokyo by force. In the decade before Perry appeared, the Japanese had watched with growing unease as their neighbors were subjugated by Western powers. With a modest navy and few modern weapons, it realized it had no choice but to accept Perry's terms. "It is best that we cast our lot with them. One should realize the futility of preventing the onslaught of Western civilization," argued the scholar Yukichi Fukuzawa in his essay "On Leaving Asia."

The Meiji era was proclaimed on October 23, 1868, when the fifteen-year-old emperor moved his residence from the Kyoto Imperial Palace to Tokyo ("eastern capital"). Charting a starkly different path from the previous government's policy of self-imposed isolation, the new imperial government decreed in the Charter Oath that "knowledge shall be sought throughout the world," and set Japan on the path of studying, emulating, and in many respects surpassing nations around the globe. The Japanese of the early Meiji years were fascinated by the "new," and would try anything as long as it was different from what came before. "Unless we totally discard everything old and adopt the new," the novelist Natsume Soseki wrote, "it will be difficult to attain equality with Western countries." Japan's first minister of education urged his countrymen to intermarry with Westerners in order to improve Japanese racial stock, and proposed adopting English as the national language. Japan built railroads, public schools, and modern hospitals; it established a banking system, a postal network, and a modern military. With the end of the feudal system, people were for the first time free to choose their occupations, rather than follow in their fathers' footsteps; and new industrial inventions provided many new professions for them to pursue. Children attended free public schools; and as literacy rates soared, so did the number of books and newspapers.

Japan's fascination with the West was reciprocated. In 1876, eight million people visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition to view thirty thousand exhibits from thirty-five nations. The United States showcased George H. Corliss's steam engine, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone, and the Singer sewing machine. Japan's investment in the exhibition was second only to that of the United States, and included an entire pavilion filled with elaborate bazaars and exquisitely tended gardens. Compared with Japan's, other countries' displays looked "commonplace, almost vulgar," noted The Atlantic Monthly. "The Japanese collection is the first stage for those who are moved chiefly by the love of beauty or novelty in their sight-seeing. The gorgeousness of their specimens is equaled only by their exquisite delicacy." Visitors praised the clean lines and simple elegance of Japanese design. Following the Centennial Exhibition, America went Japan crazy. New Englanders, with their transcendentalist philosophy and love of nature, were particularly smitten. "How marvelously does this world resemble antique Greece — not merely in its legends and in the more joyous phases of its faith, but in all its graces of art and its senses of beauty," wrote the journalist and Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn.

Among those attendees who became captivated by the exotic country was Edward Sylvester Morse. A zoologist who specialized in the study of shell-like marine animals known as brachiopods, Morse was spellbound by Commodore Perry's descriptions in his Journals of the shells he had spotted along Japan's coastline. On paper, Morse wasn't the most academic character. Born in Portland, Maine, in 1838, he was a restless boy with the kind of intellectual curiosity and vivid imagination more suited to expeditions than to the classroom. When Morse was twelve, his oldest brother, Charles, died of typhoid, and the minister who led the funeral decreed that, not having been baptized, Charles would spend eternity in hell. After his death, their father, a preacher, grew more rigidly religious, denouncing Edward's passion for science as an affront to God. Morse's mother, however, was so enraged by the minister's words that she vowed never again to set foot inside a church. Edward, too, became a rebel, and by the time he was seventeen, he had been expelled from four schools. Although eventually awarded several honorary degrees, he never earned one himself.


Excerpted from The Invitation-Only Zone by Robert S. Boynton. Copyright © 2016 Robert S. Boynton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Map of Japan and North Korea,
Key People,
1. Welcome to the Invitation-Only Zone,
2. The Meiji Moment: Japan Becomes Modern,
3. Reunited in North Korea,
4. Japan and Korea's "Common Origins",
5. Adapting to North Korea,
6. Abduction as Statecraft,
7. From Emperor Hirohito to Kim Il-sung,
8. Developing a Cover Story,
9. The Repatriation Project: From Japan to North Korea,
10. Neighbors in the Invitation-Only Zone,
11. Stolen Childhoods: Megumi and Takeshi,
12. An American in Pyongyang,
13. Terror in the Air,
14. Kim's Golden Eggs,
15. A Story Too Strange to Believe,
16. The Great Leader Dies, a Nation Starves,
17. Negotiating with Mr. X,
18. Kim and Koizumi in Pyongyang,
19. Returning Home: From North Korea to Japan,
20. An Extended Visit,
21. Abduction, Inc.,
22. Kaoru Hasuike at Home,
Time Line,
Selected Bibliography,
About the Author,
Also by Robert S. Boynton,

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