The untold history of North Korea's brutal kidnapping raids

[As Heard in North Korea]
 |  2017-02-21 18:29

Daily NK and Unification Media Group will be interviewing victims of abuses and broadcasting excerpts of the recorded testimonies to listeners in North Korea as part of broader efforts to support the Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea, established in November 2016 pursuant to South Korea's North Korean Human Rights Act. It is hoped that this will raise awareness among the North Korean population that the outside world stands in solidarity against their oppression, as well as serve as a warning to the perpetrators that they will one day be held accountable.

Calls are mounting to hold those in the North Korean leadership accountable for crimes against humanity. The Center for Investigation & Documentation on Human Rights in North Korea was established in Seoul to document abuses perpetrated by the North Korean authorities and record the testimonies of victims of abuse. One of its major goals is to prepare the groundwork for a legal basis to prosecute those responsible in the North's leadership.

In order to understand the importance of why South Korea and the international community must undertake such work, we heard from victims of the North's human rights violations themselves. To better understand the importance of why the UN and the Republic of Korea government are taking such steps, lets turn to an individual story.    

Todays guest carried out over 160 kidnapping missions on the orders of the North Korean authorities while serving in the military. Mr. Kim Hun, I want to thank you for providing your testimony to us today. Could you please introduce yourself?  

I was born in Hamhung City, South Hamgyong Province. I completed my military service on the east coast in Wonsan and the west coast in Nampo. I defected in June 2012 and arrived in South Korea one month later. I came directly to the South and didnt spend much time in any third countries. 

You said that you performed military service. Can you describe this in detail for us? What kind of role did you have and what kind of tasks did you carry out?

North Koreas Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) has troops that are responsible for hijacking at sea and kidnapping, infiltrating spies into foreign countries, and dispatching reconnaissance agents to carry out acts of terror. I served within an arm of the RGB that acted as a liaison to the Central Party. It was an organization affiliated with the operational office. In the past, it was known as the 7th Division, but there was a reshuffle and they are now known as the 6th Division. The commander of the operational division at that time was O Kuk Ryol, who continues to serve in that capacity to this day. Hes almost 80 years old, but the nature of the reconnaissance work in North Korea requires consistency and secrecy. I think thats why he has been able to continue to serve in that role for such a long time. 

When did the North Korean authorities begin to kidnap South Koreans and other foreigners? 

They started in the early 1960s. The Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB) established a marine penetration team on each coast. In the mid 1960s, the Party Liaison Office began to mirror the RGBs efforts by launching its own kidnapping missions. Over time, the Liaison Office became an even stronger presence than the RGB. It maintained bases mainly along the coast in places like Chongjin, Kimchaek, Wonsan, Nampo, and Haeju. 

In which era did the most kidnappings occur? 

From the mid-1960s to 1985, there was a concentrated 20-year period in which a large number of kidnappings were undertaken. In North Korea, theyre referred to as fishermen strategies rather than kidnappings.   

Can you describe how a typical kidnapping order gets implemented? 

The international community often places grave significance on incidents of kidnapping when discussing North Koreas human rights violations. When I was serving, we were sent to foreign countries to undertake kidnapping operations. This included South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, some Southeast Asian countries, and a few others. The first step was to infiltrate the country. Then we would perform extensive reconnaissance by carefully documenting our surroundings. 

Who were the main targets of the North Korean kidnapping campaigns?

Even though we referred to all kidnappings as fishermen strategies, fishermen were not the only victims. If you wandered into North Koreas crosshairs, you could become a victim, even if your feet were firmly planted on the ground in a foreign country. Back in those times, officers would say, we need that person, and that person would be taken. Sometimes people were taken indiscriminately. One of the more well-known stories is that of Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1977. She wasnt out at sea. She was walking home from the waterfront when she was taken.  

If you are wondering why fishermen were the main targets, its because theyre the most exposed and vulnerable. Fishermen travel far and wide out at sea, and are often beyond the sphere of their countrys protection. North Korea was able to get a lot of information from these fishermen. In the case of South Korea, for example, a fisherman from Gangneung might go to Busan or Jeju island in search of a good catch. Fishermen tend to know the local topography well, including the locations of military bases and missile launch sites. Thats why they were such high value targets for North Korea. 

In particular, it was very important for North Korea to know the sediment types of different seabeds. Is the seabed near that particular harbor made of gravel? Mud? Sand? Also, South Korea was rapidly building wharfs, ports, and seawalls at that time. North Korea needed to know about the latest developments and positions of these features. In the event of a conflict, it would be important to designate landing sites for North Korean vessels. This would help facilitate an invasion of South Korea. Thats why the fishermen were kidnapped. Some of the kidnapped fishermen were indoctrinated by the Juche ideology and ended up working as spies for the North.  

The kidnapping victims arent just interrogated and then left to their own devices. They are not permitted to live freely in the North. They are monitored and controlled very strictly. When I reflect on it now, kidnappings really are some of the worst forms of human rights abuses that the regime has perpetrated. On the other hand, in North Korea, being mobilized to participate in a fishermen strategy is considered a high honor. Its a task closely associated with contributing to unification, Kimilsungism, revolution, and communism. Under those important banners, the act of taking a fishermans life was considered inconsequential. Instead, it was considered a proud act. 

The general tactic is to pick the youngest person as the kidnapping victim. They tend to retain the most value into the future. When a North Korean boarding party seizes a boat, they board it and assess the crew. Small and medium sized boats have anywhere from one to eight crew. The kidnappers pick the youngest one to kidnap and the remaining crew are all killed. The purpose is to leave no trace. The crew are all placed in the hold where the fish are stored and the door is fixed shut with wire. Then the boat is sunk and all the evidence disappears. 

While I was doing my service, we oversaw the kidnapping of at least 80 South Korean and Japanese victims. In South Korea, people more or less understand that the victims have been killed, but in Japan it is a bit harder for them to believe. Everyone on the boat except for a single person is killed on the spot. I undertook those tasks for 20 years. North Korea has undertaken these tasks for 40 years. But there is still an air of mystery surrounding the kidnappings. 

In September 2002, Kim Jong Il met with former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi. At that high summit meeting, Kim officially apologized for the kidnappings and promised to prevent future occurrences. However, Kim Jong Il also insisted that the kidnappings were not regime-ordered actions, but rather the result of individuals acting on their own volition inside special organizations. In your experience, were the kidnappings ordered by the regime and party leadership, or were they impromptu acts carried out by managers in specific organizations?   

Nothing is impromptu in North Korea. Ever since being named heir to the throne in the mid 1970s, Kim Jong Il has had the power to make the party follow his every order. Everything was carried out based on orders from the supreme leadership. Important orders had Kim Jong Ils signature in his own handwriting. Even the shelling of small islands as artillery practice needed to be approved by the Supreme Leader. The same was true for Kim Il Sung and the same is true now for Kim Jong Un.  

As a result, all of North Koreas actions are ultimately the responsibility of the leadership. The kidnappings were of course initiated by Kim Jong Il. Theres an expression about the pain of becoming a forlorn wandering spirit. This happens when friends and family cannot find their loved ones after they perish. Since they cant locate the body, they cant perform the necessary memorial services. I felt so bad for the victims of our crimes even then. I knew that they would become wandering spirits. 

What happened to the kidnapping victims? Are they still around today? 

The victims remain under strict surveillance and control. They dont have the freedom to move about freely and are forced to suffer quietly. They just have to stay in place year after year. If they make the smallest mistake, they can be instantly labelled as a spy and executed. They live out their lives in a confined space that basically amounts to a detention center. 

In South Hamgyong Province, Hongwon County, there is a group of people living together who defected from South Korea to North Korea. In the 1970s and 80s, groups of ROK soldiers defected together to the North, and they live in villages together. They are fenced in and not allowed to leave. 

In the past, I went to one of those villages to receive training. The idea was that North Korean soldiers who might participate in an invasion of the South should have an in-depth knowledge of the Souths military. So we learned about the Souths training methods, commands, tasks, movements, etc. We learned for an intensive month-long training session and then we took a test to determine whether we could graduate from the course.  

Do you think that the North Korean authorities are continuing to engage in kidnapping? 

I think there is a possibility for new kidnapping orders to arise at any time if it is viewed to be in the regimes interest. From 1965-85, the kidnappings were a bit of a competition. And then at some point, they started to lessen in frequency. However, there are instances of kidnapped fishermen being subsequently released into South Korea. They are secretly told to act as spies for the North Korean authorities. So these people are ordered to live a double life. But the likelihood of success for these operations is low. 

In most cases, these victims are not only used as reconnaissance agents. They are useful suppliers of information when it comes to port facilities, sediment type, and military installations.  To stay up-to-date, the kidnappings will need to continue. Of course, there are already North Korean reconnaissance agents who are stationed all over the world. But the regime doesnt really trust these informants. The leadership tries to double and triple verify every fact that comes in from these sources. Thats why the fishermen come in handy. 

The information is sent back to where the reconnaissance agent is stationed and extra agents are deployed to confirm the fact. Only information that meets the highest standards is passed along in reports to the supreme leadership. In some cases, the Suryong (Supreme Leader) will give high praise, designate the relevant agents as heroes, or issue a promotion.   

Since you participated in some of these missions personally, I wonder what you think about them now when you look back on them? 

It was only after coming to South Korea that I realized that the North is the most inhumane place in the world. The authorities constantly tout the countrys respect for the people and the importance of the Juche ideology in propaganda. But reality could not be more different. Many have been buried in the name of the country. For the country, it becomes acceptable to kill dozens or even hundreds of people. 

North Korea is truly hell on earth. The most uncivilized and barbaric country on the planet. Its only now that I have an acute sense of that. I constantly feel guilty and sorry for the people who have suffered because of the things that I did. I too was brainwashed by the regime and did not see it before. These days, I criticize myself an awful lot. 

According to the UNs Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights abuses, over 200,000 people have disappeared or been kidnapped by North Korea. Forced disappearances and kidnappings are crimes against humanity. Those kidnapped are thereafter forced to work for the regime, provide information, and become complicit in spy-related and terrorist activities, often against their country of birth. This is a secondary violation. The international community demands the return of all kidnapping victims to their home countries. 

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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