In a hotel in the drab and austere North Korean capital of Pyongyang, Kazumi Kitagawa’s life is predictable, if boring. She is said to be under the escort of a female guard 24 hours a day.
The only escape from her room is a walk around the hotel every morning and evening.
It sounds like prison, and in many ways it is. The difference is that Ms Kitagawa, 29, is there because of her own decision.
In a bizarre twist in the torrid relations between Japan and North Korea, Ms Kitagawa, a Japanese national, has tried to defect to the communist state.
The recent history of the two nations underlines the strangeness of it all for, in the most part, North Korea is a place where Japanese nationals are forced to go, rather than volunteer.
In September North Korea’s “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, confessed that Tokyo’s suspicions that his agents had been involved in the systematic kidnapping of Japanese nationals two decades ago was, in fact, correct.
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Taking a break?
While the rest of Japan has been understandably outraged, Ms Kitagawa has apparently seen it differently. In August, she went to China on a tourist trip and ended up in the north-east, near the river border with North Korea. On a sightseeing cruise, she apparently jumped overboard, and swam to the North Korean side, where she asked for asylum.
The last asylum attempt happened was in 1970, when Japanese members of the Red Army Faction hijacked a Japan Airlines Boeing 727 as it flew near Mount Fuji.
The defection of leftist terrorists to a communist state is one thing. What everyone in Japan has been asking since news of her defection broke late last month is why Ms Kitagawa, a nightclub worker from Osaka, did the same.
The answers, coughed up in the main by Japan’s adventurous weekly magazines, have been remarkable. For far from being an anonymous club worker, Ms Kitagawa turns out to be involved in one of the most loathed religious cults in Japan, espionage, and of course, sex.
When news of her defection attempt broke, Aum’s successor, known as Aleph, issued a statement saying it once had a member by the same name. Then came the clincher: an Aleph spokesman, Hiroshi Araki, revealed she had been acting as a mole inside the cult, working for Japan’s Public Safety Investigation Agency, the country’s equivalent of the FBI.
“We heard she was forced to act as a spy . . . She left because of the psychological burden of that role,” he said.
A source close to the agency was quoted by Shukan Bunshun magazine as saying: “She seemed to be a good spy.”
Now for the sex. Ms Kitagawa was reportedly involved in a sexual relationship with an inspector with the intelligence agency. Whether it was forced or consensual is unclear.
She apparently considered going public with her story that she was forced to spy on Aum and, in February, had photographs taken by the weekly magazine Friday.
The recently published photos include topless shots, with Ms Kitagawa covering her breasts. “Don’t you think my nude photos would give a more powerful impact to my accusation?” Friday quoted her as saying.
But her dream of a new life in a socialist nirvana seems to have evaporated. This month it was reported that in her letters to her boss at the Osaka nightclub she talked about her life in the hotel room, saying she wanted to return to Japan.
As for the North Koreans, they appear just as perplexed as the Japanese. Pyongyang is no doubt wondering if it has a rolled-gold public relations coup on its hands, or something completely different.