Stranger Than Fiction: The Pyongyang Charm School

Everyone is ashamed of something in his past.  High on my own list is the time my brother persuaded me to read “The Charm School,” a Nelson Demille spy novel.  The plot premise was that  Moscow took custody American MIA’s from North Viet Nam to create a “charm school,” an exact replica of an  American  neighborhood, complete with American residents.  The idea was to immerse Soviet sleeper agents into their next work assignments.

Unlike some other aspects of life in North Korea, it is possible to make this stuff up, and the truly  creepy  similarity between a pulp spy novel and the real North Korea is emerging.   Contrary to what’s been reported in most press coverage,  the victims aren’t just Japanese and South Koreans:

Those abducted include not just Japanese and South Koreans (nearly 500 of whom have been taken over the course of half a century) but Lebanese, Thais, Malaysians, Chinese and allegedly –Dutch, French and Italians as well. The stories that are coming out about Pyongyang’s body snatchers would make for a spy movie–a very tragic one.

The goal? To  teach North Korean spies  to act like “capitalists,” or, more broadly defined, like ordinary human beings in more ordinary parts of the planet.  In contrast to the priority given to the food supply, Kim spared no expense on his charm school:

According to a book written by Ahn Myong Jin, a former North Korean agent who defected to the South in 1993, “There were re-created examples of South Korean supermarkets, banks, high-class hotels, a night district, police stations, and elementary and middle schools.” Ahn recalled “more than 80 people who trained us to become ‘South Koreans.’ Most of them were abducted from the South to be used as our teachers.”

The South Koreans – one assumes that many of them are still alive to this day – were understandably unhappy with their circumstances.

Ahn said that the South Koreans he met “all seemed to have deep pain inside their heart. One teacher who taught us how to behave at drinking joints in the South said, ‘You are sneaking into the South, but please do not bring [back] innocent South Korean children playing on the beach’.”

How many of them still believe that their government is still trying to win their freedom?  The tragic stories go on:  a Chinese woman lured from a jewelry store; a French woman seduced and betrayed by a North Korean agent; four women enticed from Beirut on the pretense they would attend a secretarial school in Japan.  One of the women, now married to a U.S. Army deserter, was fortunate enough to receive  one visit and an annual phone call from her mother.  One Thai family learned of the fate of their daughter – who had disappeared in 1978 – from a TV program. 

Meanwhile, one of the  abductions that originally exploded into Japan’s political landscape, that of Megumi Yokota, is now the subject of a feature documentary (fittingly) entitled  “Abduction,” now touring the film-festival circuit.  Co-producers Chris Sheridan and  Patty Kim are National  Geographic alums from Canada who were so moved by the story that they quit their jobs to make the film, in close cooperation  with the  Yokota family.  For more information on screenings, click their blog, here.

Also of interest:  my post on  an address by two former South Korean POW’s, describing the 50 years they were  held in North Korea in violation of the 1953 armistice.  Another elderly POW who escaped last year was caught by China and returned to North Korea.  South Korea’s government, in an  inverse-Private Ryan move,  let out  a few  feeble whimpers and went on giving North Korea unconditional aid.

ht:  Gardner in Korea


  1. What’s truly tragic about all these abductions is that only now are their stories being exposed in the mainstream media.

    To a great extent, the governments of abductees are also responsible for having turned their backs in the past.

    Where as this kind of outrage before?

    I suppose “better late than never” and all that.