There’s no doubt that North Korea is one of the most mysterious and fascinating places on the planet, with its infamous leader Kim Jong-Un being a curious mix of ruthless dictator and comedy figure. Though the so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’ has begrudgingly opened its doors to foreigners in recent times, tourism is still heavily controlled by the government, meaning that few people from outside of the country have had access to the secrets it holds.
Perhaps one of the most shocking revelations to come from North Korea is its long history of kidnapping people of any nationality from neighboring countries. This includes thousands of victims from South Korea alone, since the Korean armistice back in 1953. From famous filmmakers to American backpackers, it seems that no potential abductee is too much of a challenge for the DPRK once they have their sights set on someone. The result is numerous unbelievable stories that in many cases seem too far-fetched to be real. However, it seems that when it comes to North Korea, the truth really is stranger than fiction…
15. Shin Sang-ok
Though the kidnapping of South Korea’s most celebrated filmmaker may seem like a movie plot, that’s exactly what happened in 1978, when Shin Sang-ok was taken, along with his ex-wife, actress Choi Eun-hee at the request of Kim Jong-il. The future North Korea leader was a serious movie buff who was desperate to create critically-acclaimed films that would win awards, and the kidnapping of a respected director and actress was part of his plan.
After being kidnapped in Hong Kong and taken to Pyongyang, Shin tried to escape twice, resulting in a three-year prison sentence. After his release and reunion with Choi Eun-hee, who had spent the last five years unaware of his abduction, the couple agreed to make films for their captor. Eight years and six films later, the pair managed to escape after convincing Kim Jong-il to allow them to travel to Vienna. While there they fled their watchers and escaped to the US embassy.
North Korea denied the abduction, stating instead that the pair had travelled to the country of their own accord after their careers had waned in South Korea. Fortunately they were able to prove the story was true using a secret recording they made of Kim Jong-il, though sadly this, and other evidence, failed to convince the public in their home country, and to this day many people believe their abduction tale is simply a work of fiction.
14. Seong Gyeong-hui
Flight attendant Seong Gyeong-hui was 23 when she was abducted, along with three other crew members and 46 passengers, during a domestic flight from Gangneung to Seoul in South Korea on December 11th, 1969. The hijacking of the Korean Air Lines YS-11 plane was carried out by North Korean agent Cho Ch’ang-hǔi. 39 of the passengers were released two months later, but seven passengers and all of the crew (including Seong) were kept in North Korea.
Nearly five decades on, little is known about the fate of the 11 abductees, although in 1992 a source in North Korea reported that Seong Gyeong-hui, along with three of the other captives, had been “employed” as announcers for the regime’s propaganda broadcasts. Song’s mother was permitted a visit to her daughter as a result of an agreement between the North and South. During the brief meeting she stated that Seong had told her she was still friends with the other flight attendant, and that the pair lived in the same town.
13. Megumi Yokota
One of the best-known stories of North Korean abduction is that of Megumi Yokota, who was just 13 years old when she was taken by agents as she walked home from school in a Japanese seaside village in November 1977. The DPRK later admitted to her abduction, and a South Korean source revealed that she was probably taken to a spy training facility in Pyongyang soon after her arrival.
Though North Korea stated that Megumi committed suicide in 1994 while undergoing hospital treatment for depression, tests on remains that the country said belonged to her came back inconclusive. Many people in Japan, including her parents, are convinced that she is still alive. In 2014 Megumi’s parents were able to meet their North-Korean granddaughter, now in her mid-20s, for the first time. In an apparent gesture of goodwill from the regime towards Japan, 81-year-old Shigeru and 78-year-old Sakie Yokota travelled to Mongolia for the meeting, which may also have included Megumi’s former husband, a South Korean man and fellow abductee.
12. Siham Shraiteh
Siham Shraiteh was studying at a secretarial school in Beirut, Lebanon in 1978 when she was approached by two Asian men who offered her a job working for a company in Japan. She, along with three other Lebanese women, were boarded onto a plane but taken to Pyongyang instead, where they were forced to study North Korean ideology. Two of the women managed to escape a year later while on a supervised trip to Yugoslavia, which was friendly with the regime. After telling their story, the Lebanese government demanded the release of the other two women – one of whom was Siham Shraiteh – and they were handed over a few months later.
However, after returning home and discovering that she was pregnant (she had been married to U.S. deserter Jerry Parrish while in North Korea), Siham decided to return to North Korea, where she and Parrish had two more children. However, when her mother visited the family in Pyongyang in 1990, Siham apparently told her she wished to return to the U.S. with their sons. However, in a 2006 BBC documentary Siham stated that she travelled to North Korea as a tourist, and then decided to stay of her own free will. She is still living in North Korea.
11. Unidentified French Woman
After their escape, two of the Lebanese abductees gave detailed accounts of their time in North Korea. One of the most shocking revelations that came from this was their statement regarding the other women in the training camp they were sent to. Not only were there around 30 other young women being held there, they were abductees from Europe and the Middle East. Among them were three Italians, two Dutch and three French women. Former South Korean abductee Choi Un-hee gave an account of one of the French women:
“A Korean agent sent to France pretended to be a rich Asian heir. He approached young French women and seduced them with his trappings of wealth. One of them could not resist the temptation of money and agreed to get engaged with the North Korean agent. Inviting her to travel to China to celebrate their engagement, the spy took the opportunity to take her back to North Korea.
Arriving at the airport in Pyongyang, the spy disappeared and another came to pick up the young French woman. She asked him to help find her friend but he replied that no person matching his description was there. The new agent took her to the ‘guest house’ and brainwashed her.”
10. Jin Gyeong-suk
North Korean defector Jin Gyeong-suk, was just 22 when she sought sanctuary in South Korea in 2002, where she became a citizen and married. Two years later, the couple travelled to China for their honeymoon. They had been hired by a Japanese studio to produce a film about the drug trade in North Korea, and went to meet with a man who supposedly had video evidence to support their film. However, the meeting turned out to be a trap; they were abducted by North Korean agents.
Though her husband managed to escape, Jin was put into a sack and taken across the Tumen River back to North Korea. She was then put into the Chongjin concentration camp, where she was interrogated and tortured. Despite consistent pressure from human rights organizations, as well as her family who petitioned the President of South Korea, Jin died in the camp in early 2005, as a result of the torture she had suffered
9. David Sneddon
When American student David Sneddon disappeared while hiking in China’s Yunnan Province in 2004, it was widely believed that he had met a tragic end after a fatal accident. However, his family remained suspicious considering no body was ever recovered from the area. One outcome they probably hadn’t expected though was that their 24-year-old son had actually been kidnapped by North Korean agents, which is apparently the case according to the head of South Korea’s Abductees’ Family Union, who revealed that the former Brigham Young student had been found living in the country’s capital of Pyongyang.
There has been some evidence, thanks to a Japanese agency, that he was arrested on suspicion of helping North Korean refugees travel through China, though it’s believed these were false charges. Even more shocking is the claim that David, who is fluent in the Korean language, worked as Kim Jong-Un’s personal tutor when he first arrived in the country. He is now reportedly working as a school teacher and is married with two children. His abduction is currently being investigated by U.S. officials.
8. Anocha Panjoy
Charles Jenkins is a U.S. army deserter who absconded to North Korea in 1965, where he lived for 40 years. Jenkins was certainly no stranger to the country’s kidnapping ploys; his own wife was an abductee from Japan, but it was his revelations about another victim that caused a huge stir, and it all began with a family photo.
When Jenkins finally left North Korea in 2004, he managed to get a rather incriminating picture past the usually extremely vigilant agents. The family portrait taken at the beach showed a young woman in the background, a woman who is believed to be Thai Anocha Panjoy, who was last seen by her family in 1978 when she was in her early 20s. Anocha and her new husband lived next door to Jenkins in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, and she told him how she was taken by North Korean agents by boat while on her way to a beauty salon. When her husband died in 1983, Anocha was married off to a German businessman who worked for the regime, and her whereabouts are currently a mystery. Her family remain convinced that she is still alive somewhere in North Korea, but have been critical of the Thai government’s apparent unwillingness to intervene.
7. Doina Bumbea
Doina Bumbea was 28 years old when she was allegedly kidnapped by North Korea in 1978. The Romanian artist had met an Italian man who claimed to be an art dealer and offered her a job as a curator in Japan – as long as she agreed to lead an exhibition in North Korea’s capital first. Her family and friends never heard from her again.
It wasn’t until US army defector Charles Jenkins left the country in 2004 when Doina’s fate was revealed; Jenkins stated in his memoirs that she was indeed an abductee who had been “given” to James Joseph Dresnok, another US army defector. The pair went on to have two sons, before Doina died from lung cancer in 1997. She asked that her body not be buried in North Korean soil. The two sons, now adults, caused a stir in May last year when they featured in a video released by a US-based, pro-North-Korea channel, professing their love for the regime and Kim Jong-un, as well as their disdain for the US. Their father, now in his late 70s, also still lives in North Country.
6. Kaoru Hasuike
20-year-old Japanese law student Kaoru Hasuike was kidnapped, along with his 22-year-old girlfriend Yukiko Okudo in 1978. The pair were taking a romantic stroll along the beach one evening when they were approached by four men. One asked for a light, and then they pounced on the couple – Kaoru was put into an inflatable boat and 24 hours later found himself in North Korea. He spent the next 18 months being forced to study the regime’s ideology and reading its propaganda, until finally, he was reunited with Yukiko. The couple married and had children, but lived a lonely and monotonous life in Pyongyang.
Finally in 2002, negotiations between North Korea and Japan resulted in the pair being allowed to visit their home country, albeit without their children. When the couple informed Japanese officials that they wanted to stay in Japan, the government, wary of embarrassing North Korea and putting the couple’s children at risk, announced their return officially as an “extended visit”. The move eventually paid off, and two years later the family was finally reunited.
5. Unidentified POWs
Despite the Korean War coming to an end over six decades ago, there are thought to be many POWs being kept in North Korea. South Korean officials have stated that there could be as many as 500 former soldiers – now in their 80s and 90s – still unable to return home. With no hope of cooperation from the North, experts have said that the only way the men can make it back is if they manage to escape — around 80 have so far, who have given accounts of the years they spent being forced to work in coal mines.
It may not just be South Korean POWs who are still stuck there — though it may sound far fetched there is a possibility that a number of US soldiers have also been held there for all these years. Documents declassified over 20 years ago show that the US government was aware that there were still over 900 American prisoners stuck in North Korea immediately after the Korean War ended, who were never released back to the US. Since then there have been a number of reports from North Korean defectors who have claimed to have seen white and black POWs still alive there. North Korea denies holding any American soldiers.
4. Unidentified Jordanian Woman
Unknown to the rest of the world at the time, North Korea had embarked on a large scale kidnapping plot of young women in 1978. The women were “given” to foreign defectors in the country as wives, and some were also in training to be agents for the regime. One such abductee was a mysterious woman from Jordan, who has never been officially identified. South Korean abductee Choi Un-hee gave a touching account of her encounter with the woman after her release:
“From December 1978 until the spring of 1979, I was living in residence No. 4 in Pyongyang. During a walk, I exchanged a few words with a young woman of about twenty who told me she came from Jordan. At the time I was wearing a woollen hat that I knitted myself. Through one of the guards of the residence, she asked me where I had bought my hat. I told her that I had made it myself. Afterwards I knitted one for her and sent it to her as a gift. To thank me, she sent me a handkerchief for Christmas.”
3. Hong Leng-ieng
Hong Leng-ieng was just 20 years old when she, along with 22-year-old So Moi-Chun, was taken from her hometown in Macau, China in 1978. Hong had given up her chance to go to university so that her younger brother could go instead, and as a result she worked as a shop assistant in a jewelry store as well as a part-time tourist guide. The two young Chinese girls were taken on the same day in 1978 as Thai victim Anocha Panjoy.
Upon her release in 1986, South Korean abductee Choi Un-hee gave an account of a Chinese girl from Macau named Hong, whom she had befriended during her time being held captive in Pyongyang. Sadly, little else has been discovered about the girls’ fate in North Korea, although in December 2012, Kim Hyon Hui, one of the terrorists who committed the Korean Airlines bombing, testified during a NARKN meeting that Hong Leng-ieng had tutored her in the Chinese language.
2. Merrill Newman
Though not technically a kidnap case, 85-year-old Merrill Newman was held captive in North Korea for 42 days in 2013. The former US army officer had travelled to the country from his home in California on an organized tour. However, after the nine-day trip was over and he was about to board his flight home from Pyongyang on October 26, the octogenarian was approached by a uniformed official and arrested.
A month later the Korean Central News Agency released a video of Merrill signing a written confession and apology for war crimes during the Korean War. The video also stated that he had “masterminded espionage and subversive activities against North Korea and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians”. Merrill was eventually released on December 7, later saying of his confession: “the words were not mine and were not delivered voluntarily.”
1. Kyoko Matsumoto
Kyoko Matsumoto vanished from her hometown of Yonago, western Japan on October 21st, 1977 while on her way to a knitting class that evening. She was added to Japan’s official list of kidnap victims in 2006, although North Korea has always remained adamant that they did not abduct the 29-year-old. It has been reported that she is now married and working with two other Japanese abductees.
Things looked hopeful for Kyoko’s family in 2008 when a Chinese businessman who had done business in North Korea passed a letter on from her, which included details that only she could’ve known. The businessman also stated that officials were planning to arrange a reunion for them, but almost a decade on this has never come to fruition. Though the current plight of Kyoko, now in her late 60s, is not exactly known, it was reported late last year that she may have been admitted to a Red Cross hospital for complications caused by gout and impaired vision.