The Scotsman, Oct. 19, 2002
Teruaki Ueno in TOKYO
Five Japanese abducted by North Korea 25 years ago came back this week for a bittersweet reunion with the families, but experts say the brainwashing they underwent in captivity meant they would suffer an identity crisis if they came home again for good.
Japan has promised to issue passports to the five if they want them and is trying to secure their permanent return, perhaps with their children, who were born and raised in North Korea and have stayed there during their parents’ visit.
But the abductees, who have lived longer in North Korea than in the land of their births, could face psychological trauma if they tried to stay in Japan after living in a society permeated by a rigid ideology and surviving by denying their roots.
“They have clung to their new identities since they denied their identities as Japanese two decades ago,” said Kimiaki Nishida, a social psychologist at Shizuoka Prefectural University. “It would be extremely tough for the abductees, already in their 40s, to switch back to their old identities,” said Mr Nishida, an expert on mind control techniques used by religious cults.
The five returnees – two men and three women – are the only certain survivors among 13 Japanese kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s to teach Japanese language to Pyongyang’s spies. All have children back in North Korea.
North Korea apologised for the kidnappings at a summit last month, clearing the way for their visit and the resumption of talks on normalising ties later this month.
Fukie Hamamoto, 47, kidnapped with Yasushi Chimura from their hometown in northern Japan in 1978, has been smiling through her tears almost non-stop since arriving back in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Most of the others, who seemed tense at first, appeared more relaxed and cheerful two days later, when they were reunited with friends and family in their home towns.
The five abductees told relatives this week that they had concealed their identities as Japanese during their 24 years in North Korea in an apparent effort to adjust to a new way of life. Trying to abandon their belief in North Korea’s special brand of communist ideology crafted by the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung could cause trauma, Mr Nishida said.
“They would be seized with fear if they broke away from communism … and they would feel terrified at being punished if they abandoned their current identities,” he said.
“It’s impossible for them to return to where they used to be in terms of psychological mind-sets,” he said, adding that Pyongyang had probably used mind-control techniques similar to those used by cults to make them blindly revere North Korean leaders.
“The abductees were reborn after special brain-washing programmes for a year or two following their abductions,” he said. “Their world views are vastly different from ours.”
Officials have said the abductees could stay in Japan up to two weeks, although media reports said that the five – worried about their children left in North Korea – want to return at the end of next week.
“Even if the abductees return home permanently, I don’t think that will necessarily mean they are happy,” said Yasuhiko Yoshida, a Korea expert at Osaka University. “That’s because they have children in Pyongyang, most of whom are students at élite universities.”
Bringing children raised in the reclusive, totalitarian state to live in Japan would be cruel, Mr Nishida said.
The abductees seem to be choosing their words carefully while in Japan, and Toru Hasuike, whose brother Kaoru was abducted, said he had gotten some strange replies when he asked about the past. Mr Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, were grabbed, gagged, put in sacks and taken to a ship which brought them to North Korea. The two later married and have two children. “I said he must have been very scared on the ship and he said ‘No’,” Toru said. “I thought it was very strange.”
The experts said the abductees doubtless feared for the safety of their children should they step out of line. “If they betray their ‘country’, their children would become hostages,” said Mr Nishida. “They know that and that’s why they will never speak the truth.”