A Chilling Tale Of Ordinary Japanese Abducted By North Korean Spies

North Korea, 2012
North Korea, 2012
François Bougon

AGEO - Shigeo Iizuka still has the black-and-white photo of his little sister, Yaeko, stuck on the inside cover of his pocket diary. It was June 1978, when the 22-year-old suddently disappeared, taken from the bustling heart of Tokyo and transferred to North Korea to be used as a teacher of Japanese language and customs for the spies of Kim Jong-il, the son of the leader of the time, Kim Il-sung.

"No one can imagine the tragedy that we have been through. I still yearn for the years I spent with my sister," sighs Iizuka, a Japanese engineer who is still working at the age of 75.

Sitting in a quaint restaurant in Ageo, a town in Tokyo's sprawling suburbs, he looks down at the photo of the young woman – she looks sad, her face framed by her long hair. At the time, she was working as a waitress in a bar in Tokyo's Ikebukuro neighborhood. She was divorced and had two young children. After he learned of his sister's disappearance, Iizuka rushed to her apartment. Everything seemed to be in order. Yaeko had left no note, no trace. She would come back, he told himself. However, one week passed, then one month, then two, and still she had not returned. Thirty-four years have now gone by.

Iizuka decided to adopt Yaeko's son, while another sister took on the young daughter. The secret was kept in the family. Their cousins were told to never let it slip. "They kept their promise for 20 years," Iizuka explains, up until the day when Yaeko's son, aged 21, needed his birth certificate to get a passport to go to the United Kingdom. That’s when he understood that he had been adopted.

Seeking help from the police was of no use. At the time, Yaeko was merely one more disappearance – they made no enquiries. The truth finally emerged in November 1987 when a North Korean spy, Kim Hyon-hui, was arrested in Bahrain for bombing a Korean Air aircraft, flying from Iraq to South Korea. The 115 passengers on board and the airline staff were all killed. Thanks to a copy of the black and white photo of Yaeko that the police had been given by the family, Kim Hyon-hui was able to identify her "teacher," who had taught her how to blend in as a Japanese native. Yaeko had taught her the manners and customs of her native land, and given her lessons on Japanese cinema, music and fashion.

"As Kim Hyon-hui had lived with her for 20 months - from July 1981 to March 1983 - she had confided in her about numerous things: like how she had cried every night when thinking about her children. Kim had told her that she had to accept her destiny," says Iizuka, who had difficulty believing this incredible story at first, he admits.

"In the bar where she was working, Yaeko was approached a few times by two or three men, seemingly spies. They offered to take her to North Korea for a few days and she had accepted. That's what North Korea said - in 2002 - but I don't believe it. She would never have agreed because of her two young children. It's a lie," her brother says, who now runs the Association of the Families of Victims Kidnapped by North Korea (AFVKN), created in 1997. Two years before Yaeko was abducted, in 1976, in the middle of the Cold War, North Korea's number one Kim Il-sung had decided on a change of direction for the communist regime's espionage campaign. The defining word was "localization" - by abducting foreigners, especially South Koreans and Japanese people, it would be possible to infiltrate the countries to put in place an efficient network of spies.

Officially, Japanese authorities have reported 17 proven cases of Pyongyang abducting its citizens between 1977 and 1983. However, AFVKN and another association, the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN), have much higher figures.

A formal acknowledgment

The youngest reported victim was Megumi Yokota, kidnapped at the age of 13 in November 1977, while on her way back from school in the Japanese seaside town of Niigata. The eldest was 52 years old. For many years, Japan seemed hardly interested in these disappearances, even when the truth emerged that North Korea was involved.

"There were families that would protest outside government, even though they knew of the potential risks it could represent for their loved ones in North Korea. But the apathy of the government pushed them to act and to appear in public," says Tsutomu Nishioka, president of NARKN.

They would have to wait until September 2002 for a change in policy. During the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's historic visit to Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il – who succeeded Kim Il-sung in 1994 – surprised everyone by recognizing that North Korea had, in fact, abducted Japanese citizens. However, even if Pyongyang considers the case closed after having admitted to 13 kidnappings – five of them returned to Japan 10 years ago, while the eight others supposedly died in North Korea – on the other side of the Sea of Japan, the affair has not stopped to gather importance, thus preventing a normalization in relations between the two countries.

According to Japan, North Korea's lies only add doubt to their version of events. Until proven otherwise, Tokyo says, the missing persons are still alive and, if they do not return or there is no concrete evidence of their deaths, no normalization of relations will be possible.

Conservative politicians, such as the current head of opposition Shinzo Abe, have taken up the cause of the victims' families. During his brief term as Prime Minister between 2006 and 2007, Abe placed the affair at the center of the government's action plan by creating a specific team, made up of various government ministers, devoted to the issue of abductions. A ministerial portfolio was also created. In June 2006, a law was adopted, dedicated to the annual organization, between December 10 and 16, of an awareness week of the "human rights violations committed by North Korea."

The face of Megumi Yokota is now plastered everywhere in Japan, while manga and animated films retrace her story, fuelling the fight for the return of the abductees.

Since Kim Jong-un"s accession to power at the beginning of this year, Tokyo and Pyongyang have reopened discussions – the first in over four years, when talks were first halted because of North Korea's second nuclear test and launch of ballistic missiles. Initial talks between diplomats were held in Beijing, lasting seven hours; however, a solution to the issue has not progressed – for the moment, at least.

Bringing the living home

"The first issue discussed was about the remains of the Japanese soldiers who died in North Korea during the war. Of course, we think that it is important, but the priority should be about the Japanese people who are still alive. With these meetings, Japan has to put the issue of the abductions on the top of the list; it must be the priority," says Shigeo Iizuka.

Tsutomu Nishioka, the president of NARKN, is not holding out too much hope in regard to how much success these negotiations can bring: "It's important to send them a message: We have to bring the living home, that's the message that we have to send to this young Kim," he stresses. The Japanese and the North Koreans met up once more in November in Mongolia, with not much more success.

Japan still does not believe North Korea's official version of events, and is demanding an investigation, before any normalization of relations can begin. Pyongyang, on the other hand, denounces Tokyo for politicizing the affair. In Beijing, it's the Foreign Ministry who has led official discussions. At the same time, the civil servants working on the case have traveled to the Chinese capital and met with one of the North Korean negotiators, bumping into him in a restaurant. Tokyo says that this was a mere coincidence. However, according to one source close to the case, this behavior is common and useful in "constructing a personal relationship with the spokespersons," in order to obtain certain information.

At the beginning of October, before the 10th anniversary of her return to Japan, Hitomi Soga, who spent 24 years in North Korea, launched a petition to bring back the abductees, one of whom is her mother. "I am incredibly frustrated, because there has hardly been any progress on the issue of the kidnappings," she deplored.

Yaeko's brother is frustrated too, and growing old, but he still has hope he will see his sister -- if the both governments make it a priority: "We are saying to the Japanese and North Korean governments: all the abductees must come home."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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