Robert S. Boynton, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and director of NYU’s Literary Reportage concentration, has published the new book The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).
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.
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.
Boynton, who has written for such publication as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Nation, recently discussed his book with Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.
How did you first learn about North Korea’s abduction project? What questions about it led you to write this book?
I learned about the abduction project at precisely the same moment that most of the world learned of it. On the morning of October 16, 2002, I opened the New York Times to the headline, “Tears and Hugs as 5 Abducted Japanese Go Home to Visit.” A bunch of questions immediately sprung to mind: Abducted by whom? Why were they abducted in the first place? And why are they only visiting their home?
I tried to learn more about the abductions, but couldn’t find much. You have to remember that it was barely a year after 9/11, and the western media was completely consumed with covering the so-called “war on terror.” I wasn’t truly able to immerse myself in the subject until the spring of 2008, when I received a fellowship to report on some stories in Japan.
Once I got there I realized how thoroughly embedded the abduction story was in Japan’s internal politics, and in the long relationship between Japan and the Koreas. I spoke with dozens of people, and learned about the specific abduction cases, as well as the incredible story of how the abductions had elevated the group of activists and family members who had been agitating about the abductions for years. It isn’t often that public opinion, in any country, shifts as suddenly and violently as it did on the day that Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korea had been abducting Japanese people for decades. The only hypothetical I can compare it to would be if we all learned that the stories we had dismissed about alien abduction were actually true. It was that dramatic.
When I set out to write the book, I was driven by a variety of questions. First, I wanted to understand what had actually happened. There was a lot of speculation in the Japanese media in the years since the abductees had returned, but not a lot of new information. I was curious about why so little real information had emerged, and that led me to the story of how the Japanese media had collectively (and formally) agreed to censor itself, agreeing not to press the abductees to talk, or to ask uncomfortable questions. The media story became an important aspect of the book.
Finally, the biggest questions I had were about the long relationship between Japanese and Korean culture. For all the attention paid to “history debates” in Northeast Asia, there is very little knowledge or curiosity about the deep and long-standing connections between the two cultures. People in all cultures make the mistake of assuming that things have always been the way they are, that the status quo of the present was the status quo of the past. But the fact is that, as recently as the 1970s North Korea was respected in Japan, not reviled. Over the centuries, there has been a tremendous flow of people and ideas back and forth between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago. Contact was at its most intense during the colonial era, but continued throughout the Cold War. I knew that in order to understand North Korea’s abduction project I had to understand the larger context. It is context that was missing in discussions about the abductions, whether in Seoul or Tokyo.
You have interviewed and written about many other literary journalists, such as Jon Krakauer, Janet Malcolm, Susan Orlean, and Lawrence Wright. Did any aspects of their work especially influence your own reporting and writing for this project?
My last book, The New New Journalism, was a study of contemporary literary journalism in the form of essays on, and interviews with, some of the best writers in the business. That project was informed by a single question: What methods do journalists as different as Janet Malcolm and Jon Krakauer use to report and write their work? Unlike most books about the craft of journalism, it was an anti-essentialist project. I wasn’t looking for a unitary core of “best practices.” Rather, I wanted to survey a wide array of practices, show how well (or poorly) they worked, and leave it to the reader (and my students) to pick and choose. Literary Reportage, to use the name we chose for the NYU program, is an inherently democratic form in which journalists are free to pursue the questions that fascinate them in (almost) any way they choose. It was this radical sense of freedom that I argued was the primary legacy of the New Journalism movement of the late nineteen-sixties. The idea wasn’t to imitate Tom Wolfe; it was to harness the freedom Tom Wolfe had secured for journalists in order to create something idiosyncratic and new.
The Invitation-Only Zone was my attempt to create a hybrid, a book that combined journalism, intellectual history, sociology and ethnography. I am primarily a magazine writer, and as such I have to work within the constraints of a particular publication. I’m not complaining about it, and in fact such maneuvering is part of the fun of journalism. But a book offers a writer a kind of freedom to mix it up that a magazine article can’t.
Throughout the project I kept returning to something the journalist Lawrence Wright told me in The New New Journalism. “When I’m reporting an international story I do my best to strip away the exotic veneer of the place in order to write about my characters in a fashion that is recognizable in any context. Then, once I’ve established their everyday humanity, I can get at the truly exotic dimension of the story.” I realized that the most bizarre part of the abductees’ stories were the fairly ordinary lives they lived during a quarter century in captivity. The story that captivated me was how they had come to terms with their plight, and managed to lead their lives, getting married, having children, and doing all the other things people do.
This is not to say that I in anyway diminish or relativize the horror and violence of the abductions. They were a human rights violation, and destroyed many lives, both the abductees’ and their families in Japan. But the more I learned about the abductees, I came to admire their indefatigable spirit, their sense of agency, their will to survive. I wanted to tell that “ordinary” story, and I owe Lawrence Wright for helping me have the courage to do so.
How long did you spend reporting for this project? Were most of the former abductees willing to talk with you?
I began reporting the book in earnest in the spring of 2009, so the whole project took about six years. I was aided by my academic schedule. Every spring/summer between 2009-2015, I spent anywhere between four weeks and four months doing interviews and research in Japan and South Korea. Then I would return to New York and try to understand what I had learned. Not just transcribing tapes, but reading deeply into the history of Northeast Asia, consulting academic experts, and generally trying to figure out how all the parts related to each other. I probably could have finished the book in three years, if I had worked straight through, but I needed those intervening months to reflect on the subject. I think it would have been a less thoughtful book had I written it more quickly.
The five abductees who returned to Japan do not, as a rule, speak to the press. Despite the deference afforded them by the media establishment, they were resentful about the way they had been covered. Simply getting them to speak to me was a long and drawn-out project. I spoke the most with Hasuike Kaoru, which is one of the reasons he is the book’s main character. I also interviewed the other couple, Chimura Yasushi and Chimura Fukie. Charles Jenkins, the American soldier who defected to North Korea, where he later married the abductee Soga Hitomi, was also a great source whom I interviewed several times.
Did not possessing a deep background in East Asian languages or in East Asian history create challenges—as well as benefits—when you embarked on your reporting?
I hold academic scholars and scholarship in very high regard. There is an inherent anti-intellectualism to a lot of journalism, and I try to combat that tendency in everything I write and teach. The level of scholarship in East Asian Studies is particularly high, and it was a pleasure reading the work of people like Charles Armstrong, Gerald Curtis, Bruce Cumings, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Alexis Dudden, Andrei Lankov, B.R. Myers, John Dower, Wada Haruki, Oguma Eiji, and others. I consider myself their student, not their peer. An extremely dedicated, hard working student, but a student nonetheless. The extensive research I did for The Invitation-Only Zone was one of the greatest pleasures of the project.
I believe that the best journalism grounds itself in the best scholarship, and by doing so allows a journalist to explore how ideas and insights look like when embodied in the lives of real people. That is where the “electricity” of journalism comes from. It is one thing to read about the affinity the post-War Japanese Communist Party had for North Korea, and quite another to spend hours talking to people who dedicated a portion of their lives to nurturing that relationship. It was probably the most important experience of their lives, due in no small part to the fact that they so desperately regret it today.
The greatest benefit of not having a background in East Asian Studies was that I was unafraid to ask “stupid” questions. A scholar is in some sense matching wits with his sources, and the expectation is that he is an expert in the field. My assumption is always that the person I’m interviewing is the “expert,” particularly if we are talking about his life. There is a different power dynamic in journalistic encounters, and I am always aware of how desperately I need and value those who are generous enough to talk to me.
What do you believe were North Korea’s motivations in conducting these kidnappings?
The most accurate answer to that question is also the most difficult to get one’s mind around. The reason North Korea abducted dozens of people from Japan and elsewhere was that it believed that doing so would help it convert the rest of Asia and, eventually, the world, to Kim Il Sung’s version of Communism. As unlikely as this sounds today, it is important to remember how highly regarded North Korea was in the 1960s and 1970s. It was more economically successful than South Korea, which was viewed as a military dictatorship, and financial basket case. If you were betting on which Korea was on the rise, you would have bet on the North. Among the many sources I drew on in trying to understand how East Asians in the late 1970s perceived North Korea’s economy was a C.I.A. report titled “Korea: The Economic Race Between the North and the South,” which states that “South Korea recently surpassed the North in per capita G.N.P.” It was published in January 1978.
And the regime had good reason to believe that outsiders could be educated to understand the glories of the North Korean revolution. In the 1960s and 1970s they had abducted thousands of South Korean fishermen, most of whom they returned in a matter of months. These were among the poorest members of a poor society, and they were treated like kings in the North, paraded around from village to village, attending banquets and parties on their behalf. Most returned to the South, but a number of them elected to stay. In addition, there was a steady stream of Japanese followers of North Korea’s juche philosophy who visited the North. By the late 1960s every Japanese prefecture had its own juche study center, with dozens more in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
Precisely how the various abductees from various countries would help North Korea take over the world remains unclear. It was hoped that some would spy on its behalf, while others would train North Korean spies in the culture and language of their countries. But I’m certain that the project originated in North Korea’s dreams of world domination.
How did writing this book change your understanding of North Korea?
I confess that before embarking on this book, I perceived the North’s actions as irrational. Today, while I don’t claim to understand the reason for everything the North does, I’ve learned to assume that its actions have a goal, although that goal is sometimes difficult to understand. The North is very good at not losing. For the past thirty years, it has played a terrible hand of cards brilliantly. Its people have paid a terrible price, as having innocents like the Japanese abductees. But the fact that North Korea exists today is amazing, and something that I didn’t appreciate when I started my research.
Do you have plans for your next reporting project?
I am considering a few new projects, most of which are much closer to home than East Asia.
To learn more about Robert S. Boynton’s work, please visit his website here.