KITAKYUSHU — On Aug. 30, 1993, four North Korean agents slipped over the 38th parallel into South Korea. Disguised as South Korean soldiers, their mission was to spy on U.S. and South Korean forces near Panmunjun.
Five days later, one of the agents walked into a South Korean military command post and surrendered, asking for — and receiving — asylum.
“It was because of my spy training that I decided to seek asylum. I had infiltrated South Korea previously and saw, contrary to what we were taught, that it was far more free and prosperous than North Korea,” said former agent An Myong Jin during an interview with The Japan Times.
An was 25 when he defected. Between 1987 and 1993, he had studied espionage techniques at Kim Jong Il Political and Military College, a secret compound north of Pyongyang where the nation’s top spies were trained to infiltrate Japan, South Korea and China.
“The best students were sent into South Korea because it was considered so difficult to penetrate. Infiltrating Japan was the job of lesser students because at the time, Japan was very easy to infiltrate,” An said.
After being granted asylum, An explained to South Korean officials how the spy school worked. But he also provided testimony about the school’s Japanese language teachers, reporting that several had been abducted to North Korea.
“I personally saw 11 Japanese — including Megumi Yokota, Shuichi Ichikawa and Kaoru Hasuike — and several other Japanese who I cannot identify for certain, while training at the college, and I heard from classmates about another 30 or so who were reportedly at the university,” he said.
Megumi Yokota was abducted to North Korea in 1977, while Shuichi Ichikawa and Rumiko Masumoto were abducted in 1978. Following a historic summit in September 2002 between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea owned up to the kidnappings, and Hasuike was one of five Japanese who were allowed to return to Japan in October 2002.
An was visiting Kitakyushu in connection with Kumiko Kato, a Japanese woman who disappeared in 1970. He says she may have been among the Japanese he saw while in North Korea.
According to An, the Japanese he saw worked as language teachers or translators. On one occasion in 1990, a classmate of his pointed to a Japanese woman in her mid-20s and told An he had abducted her from a beach in 1977 when she was only a teenager.
The woman, An’s friend supposedly told him, was carrying a badminton racket at the time of her abduction. An is convinced the woman he saw was Yokota, who had just finished badminton practice at school when she disappeared from the coast of Niigata Prefecture at age 13.
An is an extremely credible witness for relatives of the abductees and their supporters due to his detailed memory of his experiences and the fact that he first came forward, anonymously, with descriptions of the missing Japanese back in 1994 — well before he learned of their possible identities.
In many of his speeches and writings, An is cautious about jumping to conclusions over what he saw and tries not to raise anyone’s hopes unduly.
“Since the Kim-Koizumi summit, many Japanese families have begged me to look at photographs of their missing relatives, hoping I could identify them,” he said.
“But faces change over the years and the memory can play tricks. I cannot always be direct and say yes or no.
“I am positive I saw Megumi Yokota and Kaoru Hasuike in 1990 and 1991. But at this point I can only say that I also saw two other Japanese who appeared similar to photos I’ve seen of Shuichi Ichikawa and Kumiko Kato. I’ve also seen other Japanese who I have not been able to identify,” he added.
Yokota, Hasuike and Ichikawa are among the 13 Japanese whom North Korea has admitted kidnapping in the 1970s and 1980s.
From 1994 to 1997, An, who lives in Seoul, was a confidential source for the few reporters who were pursuing the abduction issue. Asahi Television producer Kenji Ishitaka met An in 1995, first hearing about the teaching of Japanese at An’s university and the strange story of a teacher who had been abducted while a teenager.
When Ishitaka mentioned An’s story in the magazine Modern Korea in 1996, Niigata police recognized the description.
In early 1997, the story of Yokota received extensive media coverage, with An agreeing to be publicly named as the source.
Why is An so eager to help these families? In part, he says, because he wants to see Japan put pressure on Kim, but also for personal reasons.
“My parents are still in North Korea and I’ve had no contact with them since I defected, so I feel they have also been ‘abducted’ by Kim Jong Il,” he explained.
“By helping Japan with the abduction issue, I can hopefully convince the Japanese to pressure their government to be tough with North Korea so that it will eventually collapse. This means that, ultimately, I’m helping my parents and the North Korean people.”
An visited Kitakyushu on March 24 and 25 to meet the family of Kato, who was from Kitakyushu, and to provide Fukuoka police with testimony about the woman he saw in North Korea. After seeing other photos of Kato, he now says he is 80 percent sure it was her.
Over the past few years, An has spoken to Japanese police in Seoul and Japan, has provided statements to Diet members, and has spoken at rallies throughout Japan. He has also met with U.S. State Department officials in Seoul on the issue.
“I’m happy to officially testify in the Diet as well, but they have not asked me to do so,” he said.
Part of the reason for the official reluctance to hear An, according to Kazuhiro Araki, who serves as An’s interpreter and heads a nationwide committee of volunteers looking into other possible abductions, is that it is tough to confirm his statements independently.
“Other former North Korea spies who defected may have information on the abductees. But many of them fear, for various reasons, to make their names public,” he said. Asked about other sources of information to back up his claims, An said he is in regular contact with a few other former North Korean agents who have defected.
“In early 2003, Li Sang Chol and Pak Chol Su, two defectors now in South Korea who went to the same spy school I did but before me, backed my general claims about abducted Japanese teaching at Kim Jong Il University. However, they do not want their faces to be shown,” An said.
It is when commenting on the plight of abductees whom North Korea has admitted abducting, however, that An moves from tentative, measured statements to bold, startling claims that sometimes contradict earlier statements.
He asserts, for instance, that one possible reason North Korea claims Yokota is dead is because she attracted the attention of Kim Jong Il and was whisked away to teach him and his family Japanese.
Yet in a book of his experiences published in Japanese in 2000, An admitted that he had heard from the classmate who may have been her abductor that she was hospitalized for depression at one point.
North Korea claims Yokota killed herself in 1993 after being hospitalized for depression.
“An is a credible source and is careful about not making misstatements about what he saw. But perhaps some things he asserts may be an edited report of what other defectors have told him, or simply things he wants to believe,” said Kim Young Hwa, founder of Rescue The North Korean People! Urgent Action Network.
An said that, despite current Japanese anger directed toward the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) over the abduction issue, the organization still has a role to play in resolving the matter.
“I am reasonably certain that some members of the association had a direct role in aiding and abetting the abductions. But only a few. Japan still needs Chongryun because its members have deep contacts with many officials and can act is intermediaries. North Korea and Chongryun could actually help solve the abduction issue,” An said.