Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
Although I was supposed to be teaching her English, both Hitomi and I knew that the Organization wanted us to get married. A man and a woman didn’t get thrown together like that unless marriage was part of the plan. Even though our entire courtship wound up taking only a few weeks, the Organization did not force this marriage like they had routinely forced marriages between foreigners (and North Koreans, for that matter) in the past. I don’t know why, exactly, but I imagine it’s because they figured there was no way they could make a young, beautiful woman like Hitomi be with a forty-year-old coot like me unless she really wanted to.
They told us to take a few weeks to get to know each other before starting our lessons, and that’s what we did. I told the cadres to just leave us alone. To be honest, more than one of the leaders told me to simply claim her as my own. By that, they meant rape her, and usually they used language far more graphic. I told them to go to hell, that I could never do that to anyone, let alone this poor innocent girl. If we were meant to be together, I said, we would wind up that way, and it would be by her choice as much as mine. The worst thing the leaders could do, I told them, was to try to pressure us. For once, finally, the leaders listened to me, and after a while, they kept to the background for the most part.
That first week, Hitomi barely came out of her room. She was very shy. In retrospect, she was probably very scared, too. I didn’t have a cook anymore, so while she was at her most shy, I did most of the cooking. One day I would bring her cabbage soup and rice. The next day, I would bring her rice and cabbage soup. “The same thing, every meal!” she soon started to exclaim. It was true. I’m not much of a cook now, and I was even less of one then. Cabbage soup was about all I could make. One thing I did learn to make over the years, though, was kimchi: I can make the best kimchi you have ever eaten.
At the time, one of my regular tasks was to transcribe Englishlanguage radio broadcasts into Korean for the cadres, so I had a Korean-made Horse That Leaps 1,000 Ri–brand radio (a ri is a unit of measurement that’s about a quarter of a mile) and a tape recorder in my bedroom that I didn’t even have to hide. One day that first week, I went into the bedroom and turned on NHK for her. Her eyes got big as headlights, and she started shaking. “You can’t do that,” she said. “They’re gonna kill us! They will cut our heads off!” I said to her that this was my house, and even in North Korea, I would do as I pleased. I told her she could listen to the radio as much as she wanted here. But she never really believed me. She turned the radio off as soon as I walked out of the room, and she never touched it again.
In as many ways as I could think of, I tried to make her as comfortable as possible. I would bring her cider and small sweets when she was studying in her room alone. Another thing I would do was spend a few minutes killing as many mosquitoes as I could in her room before she turned in for the night. The mosquitoes are so big and nasty there, they will practically carry you away. With her permission, I would come into the room after she had turned out the lights. I would sit in the corner with a flashlight pointed toward the floor. Between the light and my scent, many of the mosquitoes that would have been bothering her came over toward me. I would swat as many as I could see for as long as it took, so that she could have a more undisturbed rest. And then I would creep out of the room. Usually, she was already asleep by the time I left.
Soon we started playing cards. Blackjack was the only game I knew how to play well, so we played endless games of blackjack. And we smoked. A lot. In that first month, we must have gone through ninety packs of cigarettes. Other times we played a game that the leaders taught us that was a lot like gin. One time, while we were playing cards alone, I said to her that I had heard that a number of Japanese had been kidnapped and brought here against their will. Without saying a word, she pointed to her nose to indicate: “I am one of them.” Before long, she had told me her whole story, which I still cannot believe. It makes me so sad.
On August 12, 1978, Hitomi and her mother, Miyoshi, went shopping at a small grocery shop and general store down the street from their house. They lived in a town called Mano on Sado Island, a small island off the west coast of the biggest of the four main islands of Japan. It is a very beautiful place but very isolated, so much so that in feudal times political prisoners were frequently banished there. For centuries, fishing, farming, and gold mining were the main, if not only, industries. Hitomi, the oldest of two daughters, was studying to be a nurse. On that day, around dusk, the mother and daughter had bought ice cream, among other items, and were walking home. They were just a few hundred yards from home when three men jumped them from behind. That was the last time Hitomi ever saw her mother. To this day, nobody knows what happened to her. (Of course, somebody in North Korea knows, but the government there continues to lie, saying it doesn’t know anything about Miyoshi.) I know Hitomi holds out hope that her mother is still alive in North Korea somewhere and that someday they will be reunited.
One of the men wrestled Hitomi to the ground, tied her hands, gagged her, and stuffed her in a black body bag. Hitomi was so stunned and scared that she wasn’t even able to scream. The man who grabbed her threw her over his shoulder like a sack of coal and carried her to a small skiff with a motor that was under a bridge spanning a small inlet. The small boat chugged about an hour out to sea, where Hitomi was picked up and carried onto a larger boat and put down in the hold. The next morning, they let her out onto the deck, but there was nothing to see, just an open sea and a virtually empty ship. Whenever another boat appeared on the horizon, they made her go down below again.
They sailed the whole rest of the day and landed in Chongjin, North Korea, on the evening of the thirteenth. The next morning, they gave her breakfast and took her to the beach to look for clams. That is typical of how strange the North Korean cadres are, how out of touch they are with the emotions normal people have. Here they have just kidnapped you and your mother and separated you, they have ripped you from your home street in your own country without any explanation or any idea of what is going to become of you, and they are so out of touch with what they have just put you through and how much you might hate them and fear them at that moment that they see nothing weird in saying, “Now that we have a few moments, maybe it would be fun for you to go to the beach to look for some clams?” They are that crazy. By the end of the morning, a car came to take them to the train station, and Hitomi was on her way to Pyongyang. It was an overnight train. She showed up in Pyongyang at 7:30, the morning of August 15. That day, which marks the end of World War II in the Pacific, is, of course, a holiday in both Japan and Korea, but for very different reasons.
One of the saddest parts of Hitomi’s story, in my opinion, is that she and her mother were never considered potential abductees by Japan until North Korea confessed in late 2002 that it had kidnapped her. The announcement by the North Koreans that Hitomi was one of the living abductees took everyone, including the Japanese government, totally by surprise. The Japanese government didn’t do anything wrong—I am not saying that. There are too many missing persons to keep track of and too many suspicious disappearances to investigate to think that the Japanese government could be on top of them all. No, the part that makes me sad is the thought of being missing and wanting to be home and yet having no one looking for you. It is like you no longer exist, even though you do.
Hitomi’s father was a heavy drinker, so the rumor around Sado was that Hitomi and her mother ran away. For days, townspeople checked all the ferryboat registers and passenger lists on trains on the mainland. Some thought they had committed suicide. I feel very sorry for her father and younger sister, not only because they were left behind like that but also because of the cloud of doubt and the rumors that followed them around for years. Hitomi’s father did live long enough to be reunited with his daughter before he died in February of 2005, and that is something to be thankful for.
Here on Sado, where I now live, at least a few times a week I pass by the store where Hitomi and her mother were shopping, the point where they were jumped by the North Koreans, and the bridge under which she was hustled into a boat that whisked her off to sea. And every time I do, I feel an intense sadness for everything my wife has suffered and lost. If fate threw us together, I hope that I have been a good enough husband to at least partially make up for all of the other suffering she has experienced.
After a few weeks of getting thrown in and out of different guesthouses, Hitomi was finally placed with Megumi Yokota. Yokota is the Japanese abductee who was snatched by North Koreans on her way home from badminton practice from her home city of Niigata in late 1977, when she was only thirteen. Today, she is probably the most famous of all the abductees and the strongest symbol for those in Japan working for more information about those still missing. There is much speculation and controversy to this day about whether she is alive or killed herself in the early nineties like the North Koreans say and whether the remains they sent back in 2004 really are hers.
For about eighteen months, Hitomi and Megumi were roommates in a small house in central Pyongyang. Back then, according to my wife, the two girls did little else than study Korean language and Juche philosophy. One of Yokota and Hitomi’s early tutors was Sin Guang-su, the notorious North Korean agent who is suspected of abducting at least one other Japanese citizen. Yokota had been in North Korea for a year and her Korean was already excellent, so she helped my wife learn much of her early Korean. Many of the Japanese abductees were forced to teach high-level North Korean spies the finer points of Japanese language and customs so that they could pass as Japanese. That is what Megumi reportedly wound up doing in later years. According to several news reports I have seen since returning to Japan, Megumi spent at least a few years, perhaps through 1988 or after, teaching Japanese to spies. To this day, I am not sure why the North Koreans did not make Hitomi go the route that most of the other Japanese abductees went, and neither is she.
Hitomi says that during the time they spent together, Megumi, who was only fifteen at the time, was horribly homesick and cried a lot. Since they had only each other, it should be no surprise that they became best friends. Years later, we learned that Megumi had named her own daughter Hae-gyun, which was my wife’s Korean name. Hae-gyun is a fairly common name in Korea, but I doubt this was a coincidence. I am certain that Megumi named her daughter after her best friend, Hitomi.
Megumi was a badminton player, and she had her gear with her when she was taken. When the girls found out that Hitomi was being moved (to come live with me, it turns out), Megumi gave Hitomi her little badminton bag as a going-away present. It was too small for a badminton racquet, but it held her workout clothes. It was red with the number “17” stitched on the side of it in white, and it had the name “Megumi Yokota” written in kanji characters on the inside in Magic Marker. At one point, we tried to wash the name off, because my wife didn’t want a leader to see it, but that Magic Marker was stubborn. So we covered the name with a patch and epoxy. Over the years, I would take the bag to the foreigners’ stores as a shopping sack. I would use it to carry sugar or eggs. Then it sat in a closet for the longest time. When I left North Korea in 2004 and was scrambling to collect possessions that were important yet didn’t look important (and thus I could get out of the country successfully), I wanted to bring that bag with me as a piece of evidence. Unfortunately, during our final preparations for our trip, I could not get back to the house a final time to collect the bag.
After my wife came to live with me, we were not able to have much contact with Megumi, which I think broke Hitomi’s heart. There were only two major points of contact that I can recall, in fact. One time, around 1983 or 1984, my wife was shopping at the Tae Dong Gong Dollar Shop. Back when she and Megumi were roommates, they would go to the Tae Dong Gong Dollar Shop together often, and one of the shopgirls became relatively friendly with them. That night, the same shopgirl was working at one of the counters. Buying things at the Tae Dong Gong Dollar Shop was a complicated process, far more complicated than it needed to be, but here is how it worked. When you saw an item that you wanted, you told the counter girl. She would write you up a ticket and hand it to you. Then you would take your ticket to the cashier and pay. The cashier would stamp the ticket twice and keep half of it. Then you would take the other half back to the counter where you could claim your item.
On this day, I do not know what my wife told the counter girl she wanted—whether it was washing powder, a frying pan, a pair of shoes, or what—but when she did, the shopgirl passed her a folded letter along with the ticket. Hitomi was so surprised and nervous that she just about died. When she was finally home and safe, she unfolded it. It did not begin with a greeting, and the writer did not sign it, but the note started with the characters “GaNaLa,” which is the beginning of the Korean alphabet. This would be like starting a letter in English “ABC.” “How is the Korean coming?” or something like that was the next line. My wife knew instantly that Yokota had written it. The rest of the note, which was not long, did not offer much in the way of specifics. I am sure Yokota realized how risky sending notes like this was, so she attempted to be vague enough so that her identity would not be revealed if someone else found the note but Hitomi would still know she was okay. The note told my wife that she was doing fine, considering, and that she was living in central Pyongyang. She mentioned that she lived near a large crane that was building the biggest building she had ever seen in her life. My wife and I talked about it and decided that she must be near the gigantic 105-story hotel that has never been finished. Hitomi, after much deliberation and heartache, decided not to send a note back to Megumi through the shopgirl. It was, she concluded, simply too risky to open a regular line of communication this way, no matter how badly she missed Megumi and no matter how tempted she was.