Robert S. Boynton’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. He was graduated with honors in philosophy and religion from Haverford College, and received an MA in political science from Yale University. He is the author of The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project (2016) and The New New Journalism (2006). He directs the Literary Reportage program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
No one knows how many abductees remain in North Korea. Japan estimates anywhere from a handful to several dozen. Over four hundred South Koreans are known to have been abducted. If one adds those taken from Lebanon, Macao, Thailand, Romania, and the U.S., the total may run to the thousands. From 2002 to 2007, the abductions were a Japanese national obsession, running in newspapers and on television every day. A public which had cared little about North Korea, and a media that had completely missed the story, now couldn’t get enough of it. However, the issue—coming in the wake of 9/11—is not well known in the English speaking world. The abductions came to light at a time when Japan has been trying to define its post-war national character. Is it the militarist aggressor that colonized Asia and started a war with the U.S., or a pacifist nation, victimized by the atomic bomb and, now, the abduction of its citizens? Japanese often told me the abductions were their 9/11, much as the bombings in Madrid and London had been Spain's and the U.K.'s. This puzzled me since Japan is one of the world’s most peaceful countries. But I began to understand that their “9/11” was less an event than a state of mind. Japan was traumatized by the realization that the world is a more dangerous place than it assumed, where even prosperous countries cannot protect themselves from Al Qaeda or North Korea. I want to understand the regional policies emerging from this issue.