Image: Japanese National Police Agency, modified by NK News
A week or so ago marked fifty years since the Yodo incident, a story that is bizarre even by the standards of the peculiar world of North Korea — and one that is not completely over yet.
On March 31, 1970, at 7:33 am, Japan Airlines flight 351 took off from Tokyo Haneda Airport. It was a Boeing 727 with 122 passengers and seven crew members destined for the Japanese city of Fukuoka (the plane was called Yodo, or Yodo-go, which is why the incident became known as the ‘Yodo affair’).
Things took an unexpected turn just twenty minutes after departure, when a young man got up and ordered his comrades to withdraw their pistols and samurai swords. The plane was being hijacked.
There were nine hijackers onboard — all very young, aged between 17 and 27. They were members of a radical leftist group which called itself the Japanese Red Army Faction.
The late 1960s was a time of great political turmoil in the West. The younger generation, having lived through arguably the golden age of modern capitalism, felt bored and annoyed by the system, and took it upon themselves to challenge it.
In most cases, these challenges were fairly harmless, as was the case with the American countercultural movement. In other cases, the firebrand rhetoric remained merely, well, rhetoric, that evaporated soon after the young zealots took their first regular office job.
However, in Japan, as well as in some European countries (Germany or Italy, for example), this desire for a better society pushed some idealistic youngsters toward more violent militancy.
The Japanese Red Army, like many leftist terrorist groups of the time, was heavily influenced by Maoist theory — remarkably fashionable among European progressives at the time, even at a time Mao himself was busy starving farmers and torturing writers.
The Red Army, in emulation of the Great Helmsman’s deeds, wanted to start a guerrilla war in Japan to overthrow the “reactionary order” and usher in a workers’ paradise.
But they soon realized that they needed training that was impossible in Japan. So the Red Army strategists made a decision: they had to go overseas and establish a training center in a communist country which, surely, would support them in their revolutionary struggle.
Then, having undergone training and obtained weapons from their ideological brethren, they would come back to Japan to start their righteous war.
The best solution, they thought, would be to hijack a plane and fly to their chosen communist country. Given the-then infatuation with Cuba, one should not be surprised that the Red Army initially contacted Cuban diplomats.
Their requests were turned down: Cuba did not want to create any trouble in its relations with Japan, which was seen as a potentially useful trade partner.
So, the Red Army Faction changed their plans and decided to hijack a plane in order to escape to North Korea.
Interestingly, the mastermind of the plan, Shiomi Takaya, was imprisoned right before the hijacking due to his instrumental involvement in the group’s even more grandiose plans, which included the abduction of the Japanese Prime Minister.
He spent a long time in prison, was released in 1989, and spent the rest of his life (he died in 2017) preaching a curious mixture of extreme Japanese nationalism and socialism.
Another group of his loyal followers in May 1972 did indeed deliver a strike against world imperialism, killing 26 and wounding 80 at Israel’s major international airport. Most of the victims were Christian pilgrims.
But back to the Yodo group: since Shiomi Takaya was in custody, a man called Takamaro Tamiya was in control of the operation. It was he who shortly after take-off stood up and announced the hijacking.
Hijacking was much easier in those days, when terror in the air was still in its infancy. Americans believe that airport security came into existence following the 9/11 tragedy, but this is a very U.S.-centric view; America was a latecomer, with most countries having had security checks and searches in place by 1980.
In 1970 though, security control was still totally absent in most countries, including Japan. The nine Yodo youngsters had few, if any, problems with getting fake samurai swords and mock handguns on board. They also reportedly had some explosive devices, even though there is disagreement on whether this was real or fake.
The group took control of the plane and ordered it be flown to Pyongyang. On its way, flight 351 landed in Fukuoka, where it had to be refueled. Seniors, women, and children, numbering 23 altogether, were allowed to leave the plane before the Yodo departed for Pyongyang.
At least, the North Korean capital was its supposed destination. The Japanese and South Korean authorities decided to land the plane in Seoul, where the hijackers would be lured out and arrested.
In order for the ruse to work, it was vital that Gimpo Airport be presented as the North Korean international airport.
The South Korean authorities did what they could to change the look of Gimpo Airport within the few available hours: North Korean flags were fixed everywhere, soldiers were dressed in North Korean military uniforms, and South Korean and other foreign planes were moved out of sight.
The plane landed and the hijackers were ‘welcomed to Pyongyang’ through a loudspeaker. However, they immediately felt that something was not right.
The mastermind of the plan, Shiomi Takaya, was imprisoned right before the hijacking
Accounts differ as to what raised their suspicions. Some sources say the hijackers caught a glimpse of an American airliner parked at the airport, or that they saw some American cars or even a black soldier somewhere.
Others claim that they became suspicious when they realized that there were no Kim Il Sung portraits anywhere, or that someone on the ground, when asked by the suspicious hijackers, admitted that they were in Seoul.
At any rate, the ploy did not work. The hijackers, together with a hundred hostages, stayed inside the plane.
A difficult standoff followed. The Japanese government contacted the North Korean authorities, which was not that easy since at that time the two countries had no diplomatic relations or direct communication lines.
The North Koreans promised the secure flight of the hijacked plane, as well as assuring the Japanese side that the plane, its crew, and passengers would be immediately sent back to Tokyo at the first opportunity.
Such suggestions were not welcomed by the South Korean government. President Park Chung-hee had nearly been killed by North Korean commandos two years earlier (his wife would die at the hands of North Korean agents four years later during another unsuccessful assassination attempt against him). So it’s difficult to blame him for his reluctance in cooperating with North Korea.
Seoul’s position was that the plane should not be allowed to leave Gimpo with the hostages. They demanded all the hostages be released, and that following this the plane would be allowed to fly North.
The Red Army hijackers did not buy this promise, assuming (perhaps, correctly) that a plane without hostages would become an easier target for the special forces.
The situation on board was becoming tense. The electricity supply was cut, and the toilets did not work and started to stink.
More than anything else though, the passengers themselves were afraid of the potential “rescue” effort than the hijackers. Indeed, as we know now, such plans were in motion but were canceled due to firm resistance from Japanese officials arguing against storming the plane.
This was not Stockholm Syndrome though; the passengers’ fears were based on a pragmatic assessment of the situation. They were afraid that if the plane was stormed by the security forces many of them would die in a resulting shootout.
On the other hand, they understood the motivation and backgrounds of the hijackers, and believed these people were not going to harm Japanese civilians unless provoked.
The Yodo’s flight ended safely on April 3 at 19:21, and the crew was soon off flying the plane back to Japan
A compromise was finally achieved. The hijackers agreed to release the passengers, with Japanese vice minister for transport Yamamura Shinjiro volunteering to fly to Pyongyang as a “replacement hostage.”
The swap took place, and the plane took off. Later, the vice minister said of the hijackers that “as individuals they were very pleasant and polite companions.”
There were other difficulties though: the crew had no maps of the area, and communication with Pyongyang did not work as intended.
Also, night was approaching. The captain, a highly experienced pilot with wartime experience, landed on a small airstrip in the vicinity of Pyongyang he was able to visually locate before it got dark.
The Yodo’s flight ended safely on April 3 at 19:21, and the crew was soon off flying the plane back to Japan.
Yamamura Shinjiro, the transport minister, went on to become a highly influential member of the Diet. In 1992, he died a violent death after being stabbed by his own daughter, who had psychiatric problems. By incredible coincidence, this happened days before he was scheduled to fly to Pyongyang for negotiations.
Interestingly enough, among the released passengers was Stephen Fumio Hamao, who, in due time, would become a cardinal of the Catholic Church. Also on board was a famous medical doctor, Shigeaki Hinohara, who came to be tremendously popular in Japan (he lived until the extremely advanced age of 106).
Upon arrival, the hijackers were first briefly housed at the Pyongyang Hotel. This building, which still stands on the banks of the Taedong River, was at the time arguably one of the most luxurious hotels in the austere North Korean capital. After that, they were moved to one of the residences for visiting foreign officials.
The hijackers probably still wanted to go to Cuba, the CheGuevaraLand of radicals in those days, but their new hosts did not have the slightest intention of letting that happen.
The North Korean authorities also had no intention of sending Takamaro Tamiya and the other “revolutionaries” back home either, even though the young zealots initially assumed that they would soon complete their training (in explosive devices, knife fights, surveillance, and other useful revolutionary skills) and be sent back.
The North Koreans had different plans for their future: Japan was an important target of DPRK diplomacy, trade, and espionage, and the activists could be used for all these purposes.
The escapees underwent a period of intense political training where they were indoctrinated with Juche ideology. Very soon, they discovered that discussions were not encouraged and that good memorization of the Great Leader’s wisdom was the only way to enlightenment.
Perhaps not everybody was happy with their situation. One of the Yodo group, Yoshido Kintaro, was officially considered dead in 1985, as the Yodo group people notified their contacts in Japan.
But the stories they later told had a number of inconsistencies that make it clear he died or disappeared much earlier, likely due to his dangerous and unhealthy habit of arguing with ideological instructors.
The death of another group member, Okamoto Takeshi, is also shrouded in mystery, and there are persistent rumors he was killed while trying to escape North Korea.
The North Koreans had different plans for their future
Most members of the group, however, happily accepted their new position. They were to remain at the service of the world revolution in general, and its natural vanguard, the Kimilsungist North Korean revolution.
It will take decades before it becomes clear to what extent the “Yodo Nine” came to be involved in clandestine North Korean operations, but there is no doubt that at least some of them worked hard for the cause. Traces of their presence behind the scenes pop up here and there when looking at the history of North Korean secret operations around the world.
The largest scandal involving the Yodo group in their new capacity as clandestine North Korean operatives took place far away from Korea and Europe in Southeast Asia, and nearly a quarter of a century after the flight 351 hijacking.
In the mid-1990s, the Thai police were concerned about the influx of high-quality counterfeit U.S. hundred dollar bills, usually used in casinos. The notes were traced to a particular office in Cambodia, which was subsequently raided. A middle-aged Asian man was found in the office but managed to flee and took refuge in the North Korean embassy.
A few days later, the same man, in the company of a few North Korean diplomats, was in a large Mercedes with North Korean diplomatic number plates heading towards the Vietnamese border.
A chase followed, and the car was finally blocked on the border checkpoint between Cambodia and Vietnam. Four people, including the suspicious man, spent nearly two days locked inside the diplomatic car, where they ate their snacks and relieved themselves, while the relevant authorities engaged in intense negotiations.
Finally, a deal was made and the suspicious man surrendered to the police. He produced a North Korean diplomatic passport, but it soon turned out that Comrade Kim was actually Yoshimi Tanaka, one of the members of the Yodo group.
He was acquitted in Thailand, since it was impossible to prove a connection between him, the suspicious office, and the counterfeit money. However, he was extradited to Japan to stand trial for hijacking, where in 2002 he was found guilty and, in 2007, died in prison.
In 1975, personal problems began to mount within the group
Back to the mid-1970s, when the most bizarre part of this bizarre story begins to unfold: the time of a great wife hunt – sometimes, in the most literal sense of the word.
In 1975, personal problems began to mount within the group when Konishi Takahiro’s girlfriend arrived in North Korea and married the Yodo group boss. This triggered some tensions among the young and hormonally-charged revolutionaries.
It was decided the group needed wives — real, authentic Japanese ones. This decision was either made or approved by Kim Il Sung himself.
In total, the North Korean spy agencies succeeded in acquiring seven Japanese women. At first, they were looking for Japanese girls who, because of their own political convictions, would probably not mind coming to North Korea and would do so more or less voluntarily. At that time, North Korea was still seen by many Japanese leftists as a shining beacon of progress.
At a later period, however, with deadlines approaching, the “wife-hunters” became less choosy and began to target any girl who could somehow be lured to North Korea during a trip overseas.
In this case it’s not easy to distinguish between abduction, deception, and free choice. Some Japanese wives were clearly abducted; others made their own choice, even though their decision was based on rather distorted assumptions.
To make things even more complicated, some abducted wives accepted and perhaps even embraced their new life, while some earlier enthusiasts eventually became discontented.
At any rate, the deadlines were met, and seven brides were sent to North Korea – one for each Yodo member. As I mentioned earlier, one, Konishi Takahiro, had already been joined by his girlfriend, while another, Okamoto Takeshi, had seemingly been removed from the group or was dead by that time.
All marriages took place almost simultaneously, in early May 1977. On May 14, Kim Il Sung himself found time to drop by and express his congratulations to the newlyweds. As one can easily expect, in less than a year nearly all the members of the Yodo group had become fathers.
One cannot help but wonder why the North Korean authorities did not allow for what would appear to be an easier – and much cheaper – solution: providing the young men with local brides.
The reasons are not known, of course. It’s possible that their North Korean hosts just wanted to make the lives of their guests as comfortable as possible. After all, there are frequent mentions in official North Korean ideology to the horrible problems that arise from mixed marriages.
It’s also possible that a touch of deep-rooted racism influenced their reasoning: the North Koreans may have looked unfavorably on the idea of giving the Japanese, no matter how “politically conscious,” access to chaste North Korean girls.
Finally, it’s also possible that this was done because many members of the Yodo group were involved in clandestine missions in foreign countries — having a relatively reliable Japanese spouse (with an authentic passport, as we will see) was likely to help the couple in their future overseas adventures.
Indeed, some of the wives, once judged sufficiently reliable, could be occasionally dispatched on such missions – sometimes, but not always, together with their husbands. For example, Yao Megumi was sent to Japan to establish a café near a major U.S. installation in Yokosuka and spent a few years there until she was arrested by the Japanese police in 1988.
This reminds this author of the glorious days of the Soviet intelligence services when, in the 1920s and 1930s, spymasters could count on the support of committed communists from across the world.
North Korean ideology, being deeply nationalistic, probably does not work that well as bait for idealistic foreigners (outside of South Korea, at least). Nonetheless, the Yodo group were, seemingly, an exception.
The Yodo wives usually left the DPRK using North Korean diplomatic passports, but when overseas switched to the use of their regular Japanese passports, which they kept renewed through the Japanese consular service. At that time, this would not raise much suspicion since only later did it become apparent that these women had actually been based in North Korea.
The daily life of the Yodo group and their fast-growing families was very comfortable by North Korean standards – they clearly belonged to the top 0.1% (if not the top 0.01%) of North Korean society.
They had North Korean guards, babysitters, cooks, and drivers. Their lifestyle was palatial, even if constrained due to the manifold security and secrecy considerations.
They lived in an exclusive gated compound, protected by armed soldiers standing guard at the entrance. At its peak, around 2000, some 30 Japanese lived there: the original nine (well, six or so by that time), their wives, and their children.
The daily life of the Yodo group and their fast-growing families was very comfortable by North Korean standards
From the very beginning, the Yodo group had access to chauffeured cars and, since the early 2000s or so, were given the unusual privilege of having and driving their own cars.
The Yodo members always had access to current Japanese periodicals. Once necessary technology developed, the compound was equipped with a satellite dish, so everybody could watch Japanese TV broadcasts, and, eventually, with internet access – an exceptionally rare privilege in North Korea. They were (and are) even allowed to run their own social media.
From the 1980s, they were also allowed to meet and interact with visiting Japanese, even though such meetings were carefully arranged, closely watched, and, presumably, monitored.
Around 2000, things began to change. On the one hand, the Yodo group women, catching up with the winds of the time, opened a shop in downtown Pyongyang — selling Japanese and other imported goods, of course — which seemed to have been a commercial success.
On the other hand, the passage of time had taken its toll. Some members of the original group and their semi-voluntarily wives have passed away, including their boss, Takamaro Tamiya.
Tellingly, nearly all their children, who grew up as Japanese, opted to go to Japan. When this became possible, if a little difficult, in the early 2000s, the children began to leave the compound. Now it is almost empty: only six people live there now, instead of the original 30 or so.
It now seems that this odd story, which began almost exactly half a century ago, is approaching its end. Although there is little doubt that in due time we (or our children) will learn a lot of interesting things about the Yodo group. Much still remains hidden about what really happened.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
A week or so ago marked fifty years since the Yodo incident, a story that is bizarre even by the standards of the peculiar world of North Korea -- and one that is not completely over yet.
On March 31, 1970, at 7:33 am, Japan Airlines flight 351 took off from Tokyo Haneda Airport. It was a Boeing 727 with 122 passengers and seven crew members destined for the Japanese city of Fukuoka (the plane was called Yodo, or Yodo-go, which is why the incident became known as the 'Yodo affair').
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.