Sept. 18, 2002 -- When North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted that his country had kidnapped Japanese citizens, he opened the gates — just a crack — to the inner workings of the hermit East Asian nation.
In an admission that shocked the international community, Kim confirmed this week that North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 1980s and that four of them were still alive.
The admission came during a historic meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Kim — or the Dear Leader, as he is officially known in domestic circles — in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on Tuesday.
For more than two decades, a number of Japanese families have maintained that their missing relatives were snatched by North Korean spies as they went about their daily lives — while returning from badminton classes, taking a coffee break or after a romantic date.
The families have maintained that North Korea kidnapped their loved ones to steal their identities for international travel, to help train its spies in Japanese customs, or to be brainwashed and become spies themselves.
Initially, their claims were dismissed as too fantastic to be true, and the North Korean authorities have, until recently, consistently denied the claims.
But in a bizarre chapter of North Korean history, the world's most reclusive and arguably most iconoclastic head of state did an about-face when he apologized for Pyongyang's abduction of Japanese citizens and promised to prevent similar acts in the future.
North Korea Watching
More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, North Korea has the dubious distinction of being the world's most isolated nation and the last standing Stalinist state.
Experts studying the reclusive communist nation have had to frequently resort to what is called "North Korea watching," a complex quasi-science whose methodology for the most involves grabbing at the shreds of information released — or more often leaked — from the secretive state and worrying about its likely import.
But late last month, North Korea watchers received a particularly delectable morsel in their perennial quest for information, when a refugee fleeing to China brought with him an officially printed phone book bearing approximately 50,000 names and numbers.
According to Time magazine, the phone book was the sort only available to high-ranking North Korean officials — the first and only such directory to find its way to the West.
While the identity of the escapee was not released, the phone book ended up in Japan, from where Time obtained a copy of the 373-page, reportedly dog-eared 1995 directory.
Although he has not seen the book, Kim Choong Nam of the Hawaii-based East-West Center says the contents of the directory were described to him and from what he could deduce, the book provides a rare glimpse into the mechanics of how the "Dear Leader" controls his people.
"North Korea is a closed society and information is not available," he says. "So, if we can carefully analyze a telephone directory, we can get a lot of information — at least about the way the North Korean regime functions, its level of control, and how the society is organized and operates."
Inside an Informer Society
And if the book is anything to go by, North Korean society today looks like a sinister replay of George Orwell's 1984.
According to Time, the Pyongyang city section of the directory lists a series of government-run 24-hour informant hotlines on which North Koreans can rat on their family, friends and neighbors at any time of the day or night.
Since the 1989 revolutions that tore through Eastern Europe, many former communist states have been opening up their state archives to reveal the grisly details of "informer societies" masterminded and managed by an all-knowing, all-powerful state.
But even by Cold War standards, experts say Kim's informant network takes the cake.
"North Korea, as far as anyone can tell, is state of the art," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. "It's as close to a Big Brother society as a society populated by human beings can possibly be. There are multiple competing secret police who spy on the people and on each other. So, no one can relax and have a private life."
An Eye on the Economic Pie
Although it remains notoriously difficult to gauge what private life in North Korea is like, by many accounts, the situation facing an estimated 24 million North Korean citizens is bleak.
Humanitarian groups estimate that a long-standing famine has killed nearly 2 million North Koreans since 1995.
Under the ideology of juche, or self-reliance, the North Korean economy is crumbling and the government's abysmal credit rating has been exacerbated by a traditionally high military budget.
Many experts warn that Kim's surprisingly frank act of contrition this week comes with an eye on potential Japanese aid to help alleviate North Korea's economic pain.
"On the positive ledger, this will raise the hopes of a lot of people wishing to engage the North Korean leadership in a reform process," says Eberstadt. "On the negative ledger, it remains to be seen how much money — how much ransom — Japan pays. If Japan pays a yen or more in return for the safety of the kidnap victims, this will be seen as a new frontier in North Korea's blackmail politics."
Washington on North Korea’s Mind
Some experts maintain that in the absence of economic trade, North Korea pays its bills through what Eberstadt calls "a long pattern of military extortion," which includes international promises of food aid in return for military concessions.
Kim's apology is also being seen in the light of President Bush's "axis of evil" speech earlier this year, when the U.S. president placed North Korea — along with Iran and Iraq — at the top of Washington's bad-guy list.
"Right now, North Korea is watching the international arena and it sees what's developing on the Iraq situation," says Eberstadt. "This [Kim's apology] is undoubtedly a response to this consideration, but there are other considerations as well — such as the suffocating North Korean economy."
Iraq's offer this week to readmit U.N. inspectors without any conditions has also put pressure on North Korea to make a similar move, analysts say.
In a joint statement released in Pyongyang on Tuesday, North Korea also agreed to extend its moratorium on missile tests beyond the current deadline of 2003 and to freeze missile tests indefinitely.
While experts say the Dear Leader is eager to convince Washington that his impoverished nation does not deserve to be linked with Iraq, it remains to be seen if the latest moves would pave the way for a resumption of dialogue between North Korea and the United States.
Still Seeking Answers
Certainly, the Dear Leader's apology has chipped at Japan-North Korea ties, which have been strained ever since Tokyo withdrew from the Korean peninsular in 1945 after 35 years of harsh colonial rule.
On Tuesday, Koizumi announced that talks to establish ties between Japan and North Korea would go ahead in October. And aid discussions are also expected to take place at a later date.
But for the families of the kidnapped Japanese, Kim's admission was a bittersweet victory.
Of the 11 Japanese kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, only four are still alive, the North Koreans say. Six others are dead and one is still missing.
Nearly 25 years ago, Shigeru Yokota's 13-year-old daughter Megumi vanished while on her way home from badminton practice. This week, Yokota was finally informed that his daughter was dead.
He told reporters he was "saddened" and shocked.
"I can't believe what they say — earlier North Korea denied the abductions altogether," Yokota told The Associated Press in Tokyo on Tuesday. "I don't believe she is dead. I want to know exactly how she got to North Korea and how she died."
North Korea says all those who died perished due to natural disasters or natural causes. But the answers are unlikely to satisfy the relatives of the victims, and the whole truth about the missing Japanese may still be a long time coming. For many families, that information will come too late.