the true story of


The American Scholar

“Robert S. Boynton has produced the first well researched account in English of this abduction scheme (there is an enormous literature in Japanese), but it is far from a dry, academic text. The Invitation-Only Zone is lively and beautifully written, telling the story through the experience of Kaoru and Yukiko, as well as a number of other people caught up in the maelstrom of forces beyond their control. Boynton, who directs the literary reportage program at New York University, displays an admirably objective and nuanced perspective, unlike so much of the literature on the Hermit Kingdom. He also skillfully intersperses the personal stories with accounts of the modern history of Japan and Korea, which help the reader to understand how fraught and intractable the relations between the two countries have been and will most likely continue to be.” – Bruce Cumings

View a pdf of the review here.

The Wall Street Journal

One night in July 1978, four men approached Kaoru Hasuike and his girlfriend, Yukiko Okudo, on the beach in their small town in northern Japan, asking for a light. Suddenly the men grabbed them, bound their limbs and whisked them away in sacks. En route to Pyongyang, Mr. Hasuike learned his fate: to be groomed as an operative in North Korea’s drive to reunify the Korean Peninsula. After communism spreads across Asia, one of his captors declared, “you will return to Japan, where your experiences here will help you secure a position at the very top of the new Japanese regime!”

Mr. Hasuike and Ms. Okudo were merely two of the dozens—possibly hundreds—of people snatched from overseas in this bizarre clandestine campaign in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which journalist Robert S. Boynton covers in bolting detail in “The Invitation-Only Zone: The True Story of North Korea’s Abduction Project.”

Most targets were Japanese, snatched in retaliation for Japan’s colonization of Korea in the first half of the 20th century. Other victims included a Thai masseuse in Macau, a Romanian art student in Italy, and a famous South Korean director and actress duo. Sequestered in the special areas in Pyongyang from which Mr. Boynton’s book takes its title, they were supposed to be trained as language instructors and government agents, although the regime’s motives aren’t completely known. Many were never heard from again. The lucky ones either escaped or, like Mr. Hasuike and Ms. Okudo, were finally allowed to return home—but only after explosive diplomatic talks with Japan 25 years later.

Mr. Boynton calls his book “extreme journalism,” a story involving two languages that he humbly admits he doesn’t know, covering vast spans of place and time. These challenges have not prevented him from writing a crisp, authoritative and engaging narrative, researched over more than a decade through trips and interviews in Japan and South Korea.

His many characters shine in their complexity and humanity. We learn, in vivid detail, about the victims and their families, about investigative journalists on the trail of the disappearances, about the leftist sympathizers around the world who deny all wrongdoing on behalf of their beloved paradise, and about the unending game of deceit and trickery between anxious Japanese diplomats and their North Korean counterparts.

Some of the most intriguing stories reflect a regime that wants to keep foreigners—even the ones they have kidnapped—outside its supposedly superior genetic pool. One Japanese nursing student, Hitomi Soga, was married off to an American deserter named Charles Robert Jenkins (who had sprinted across the heavily mined buffer zone to North Korea in 1965 and who voluntarily returned to a U.S. court-martial in Japan in 2004). A now-deceased Romanian woman was paired with another ex-American soldier, James Dresnok, who still lives in Pyongyang.

Particularly exhilarating is Mr. Boynton’s account of the secret Japanese negotiations in 2002 with a mysterious North Korean diplomat at a hotel in Dalian, a Chinese entrepôt near the North Korean border. The Japanese refer to him only as “Mr. X,” and he is terrified of what the regime will do to him should he negotiate badly.

For years, North Korean abductions had been treated as no more than rumors, largely untouched by newspapers that feared the pro-North Korean lobby in Japan. Public attention was set in motion after Japanese authorities learned from a captured North Korean saboteur—after she blew up a South Korean passenger jet in 1987—that an abductee had helped her master Japanese. By 2002 Japan’s faltering prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, eager for a political victory, rushed into a North Korean state visit on terrible terms: Only after his delegation arrived, it was agreed, would the regime release the results of a supposed investigation.

Predictably, Mr. Koizumi, arriving at the meeting with then-dictator Kim Jong Il, was met with feeble claims that only five of the abductees were alive and that the other eight had died of improbable natural causes. A sharp public outcry against both the Japanese and North Korean governments ensued. Tokyo continues to demand a full accounting, officially listing 17 people as being abducted. Mr. Boynton and many others believe the world-wide number is far larger.

Stories like these illustrate the perils of engaging the blackmail state. North Korea has a long record of manipulating, stalling, backtracking and threatening in its quest for concessions and foreign aid. Even minor diplomatic gestures are spun as victories in the perpetual struggle against the American and Japanese imperialists.

Mr. Boynton rightly points out that Japan—a fascist government during World War II, inspired in its nationalism by European colonial powers—infused Korea with its ideas of racial purity under the emperor. The intense militarization of the peninsula would later backfire with the rise of North Korea’s own sun god, a scrappy guerrilla fighter named Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the dynasty that is now ruled by his grandson Kim Jong Un.

Mr. Boynton beautifully leads us through this troubled history and connects it to the plight of the abductees. Seized that night in 1978, Kaoru Hasuike was told that he must atone for the crimes of his ancestors, who had once kidnapped and enslaved Koreans under colonial rule. “The Invitation-Only Zone” is not simply about North Korea. It is a moving exploration of the trauma and tumult between aggressor and victim, master and servant, and patriot and avowed enemy. —Geoffrey Cain

The Spectator

“A thoughtful study of North Korea via an account of one of its more sinister practices: state-sponsored abductions of Japanese citizens… Boynton’s lucid, intelligent book is an important contribution to our understanding.” — James McNamara

The Japan Times

“Through in-depth interviews, Boynton shows the harrowing experience of the abductees and the heartbreak of families who, in many cases, still do not know what happened to their loved ones… Boynton expertly balances each personal story with a wider analysis of contextual history, and this is where the book’s real value lies — by looking beyond the filter of recent history… A timely and important book.” – Iain Maloney

Global Asia

In the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea systematically pursued a policy of covertly abducting Japanese civilians from Japan in order to bolster its espionage campaign against neighboring countries. The abductees were typically young, sometimes children or new couples, most commonly seized from seaside communities in Japan’s remote north-west. New York-based journalist Robert Boynton has written a detailed and wide-ranging account, based on interviews with Japanese politicians, activists, academics and a handful of the surviving abductees and family members who returned to Japan in 2002 and 2004. The account is vivid and often harrowing, documenting the abductees’ lives in North Korea, kept in relative isolation in special detention villages (or “invitation zones”) outside Pyongyang, and the challenges of later readjustment to life back in Japan. The book is also much more broadly a close exploration of the complicated historical relationship between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, exploring the legacy of the colonial period, complex issues of race and national identity, as well as the history of discrimination against ethnic Koreans in post-1945 Japan. We learn about Cold War projects to repatriate ethnic Koreans to the North in the late 1950s — tragic initiatives that frequently ended in disillusion, trauma and sometimes death — as well as the more recent complicated issue of abduction politics within Japan and Pyongyang’s fraught bilateral diplomacy both with Tokyo and with Seoul.
– John Nilsson-Wright, Senior Lecturer in Modern Japanese Studies at the University of Cambridge

Minneapolis Star Tribune

The Invitation-Only Zone is not simply another book about North Korean barbarity. Boynton connects the abduction project to the evolution of the relationship between Japan and both Koreas, digging into the pain the peninsula experienced as a colony of Japan for nearly four decades until the end of World War II.” – Evan Ramstad

Kirkus Reviews

“A thorough investigative report into the systematic abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean intelligence network over many decades. . . . More than anecdotal stories, [Boynton’s] work zeroes in on the deeply uneasy makeup of the Korean-Japanese relationship. Engaging reading, surreal in some of the Orwellian detail.” – Kirkus

The Independent

“In assessing the fallout, both political and personal, Boynton is at his most acute. In high politics, this strange episode seems to distill the sensitivities between Japan and both Koreas – people and cultures at once so like, and so unlike, each other. On the human level, the predicament of the Japanese who returned has no good solution: once kidnapped, now caught between two worlds, and even they do not understand why.” — Mary Dejevsky

Inside North Korea’s abduction of foreign nationals, BBC

April 4, 2016


The Invitation-Only Zone seems at points scarcely believable. Bound up in a long history of enmity and friction, it is an imaginative, literate investigation of a strange kind of social engineering that wrecked untold lives—and that, even after Boynton has brought it to light, still seems very mysterious.”– Gregory McNamee