One night in July 1978, four men approached Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, on the beach in their small town in northern Japan, asking for a light. Suddenly the men grabbed them, bound their limbs and whisked them away in sacks. En route to Pyongyang, Mr. Hasuike learned his fate: to be groomed as an operative in North Korea’s drive to reunify the Korean Peninsula. After communism spreads across Asia, one of his captors declared, “you will return to Japan, where your experiences here will help you secure a position at the very top of the new Japanese regime!”
Mr. Hasuike and Ms. Okudo were merely two of the dozens—possibly hundreds—of people snatched from overseas in this bizarre clandestine campaign in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which journalist Robert S. Boynton covers in bolting detail in “The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project.”
Most targets were Japanese, snatched in retaliation for Japan’s colonization of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Other victims included a Thai masseuse in Macau, a Romanian art student in Italy, and a famous South Korean director and actress duo. Sequestered in the special areas in Pyongyang from which Mr. Boynton’s book takes its title, they were supposed to be trained as language instructors and government agents, although the regime’s motives aren’t completely known. Many were never heard from again. The lucky ones either escaped or, like Mr. Hasuike and Ms. Okudo, were finally allowed to return home—but only after explosive diplomatic talks with Japan 25 years later.
Mr. Boynton calls his book “extreme journalism,” a story involving two languages that he humbly admits he doesn’t know, covering vast spans of place and time. These challenges have not prevented him from writing a crisp, authoritative and engaging narrative, researched over more than a decade through trips and interviews in Japan and South Korea.
His many characters shine in their complexity and humanity. We learn, in vivid detail, about the victims and their families, about investigative journalists on the trail of the disappearances, about the leftist sympathizers around the world who deny all wrongdoing on behalf of their beloved paradise, and about the unending game of deceit and trickery between anxious Japanese diplomats and their North Korean counterparts.
Some of the most intriguing stories reflect a regime that wants to keep foreigners—even the ones they have kidnapped—outside its supposedly superior genetic pool. One Japanese nursing student, Hitomi Soga, was married off to an American deserter named Charles Robert Jenkins (who had sprinted across the heavily mined buffer zone to North Korea in 1965 and who voluntarily returned to a U.S. court-martial in Japan in 2004). A now-deceased Romanian woman was paired with another ex-American soldier, James Dresnok, who still lives in Pyongyang.
Particularly exhilarating is Mr. Boynton’s account of the secret Japanese negotiations in 2002 with a mysterious North Korean diplomat at a hotel in Dalian, a Chinese entrepôt near the North Korean border. The Japanese refer to him only as “Mr. X,” and he is terrified of what the regime will do to him should he negotiate badly.
For years, North Korean abductions had been treated as no more than rumors, largely untouched by newspapers that feared the pro-North Korean lobby in Japan. Public attention was set in motion after Japanese authorities learned from a captured North Korean saboteur—after she blew up a South Korean passenger jet in 1987—that an abductee had helped her master Japanese. By 2002 Japan’s faltering prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, eager for a political victory, rushed into a North Korean state visit on terrible terms: Only after his delegation arrived, it was agreed, would the regime release the results of a supposed investigation.
Predictably, Mr. Koizumi, arriving at the meeting with then-dictator Kim Jong Il, was met with feeble claims that only five of the abductees were alive and that the other eight had died of improbable natural causes. A sharp public outcry against both the Japanese and North Korean governments ensued. Tokyo continues to demand a full accounting, officially listing 17 people as being abducted. Mr. Boynton and many others believe the world-wide number is far larger.
Stories like these illustrate the perils of engaging the blackmail state. North Korea has a long record of manipulating, stalling, backtracking and threatening in its quest for concessions and foreign aid. Even minor diplomatic gestures are spun as victories in the perpetual struggle against the American and Japanese imperialists.
Mr. Boynton rightly points out that Japan—a fascist government during World War II, inspired in its nationalism by European colonial powers—infused Korea with its ideas of racial purity under the emperor. The intense militarization of the peninsula would later backfire with the rise of North Korea’s own sun god, a scrappy guerrilla fighter named Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the dynasty that is now ruled by his grandson Kim Jong Un.
Mr. Boynton beautifully leads us through this troubled history and connects it to the plight of the abductees. Seized that night in 1978, Kaoru Hasuike was told that he must atone for the crimes of his ancestors, who had once kidnapped and enslaved Koreans under colonial rule. “The Invitation-Only Zone” is not simply about North Korea. It is a moving exploration of the trauma and tumult between aggressor and victim, master and servant, and patriot and avowed enemy. —Geoffrey Cain