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Number 1 Shimbun

1973: The Kim Dae-jung affair

1973: THE KIM


International Intrigue In Iidabashi


Kim Dae-jung, newly elected head of the opposition New Democratic Party of Korea,
with the late Peter “Shin” Higashi (AP) at the Club in February 1971.




The abduction of South Korean politician Kim Dae-jung from a Tokyo hotel on August 8, 1973 precipitated a major international crisis, with some media comparing it to the Israeli Mossad’s abduction of Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann from Argentina in 1960. Almost a half century later, it still evokes strong memories.

After a series of sometimes stormy negotiations, diplomatic relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) were normalized in June 1965, and by the beginning of the 1970s, two-way trade, including granting of manufacturing licenses and technical transfers by Japan, began taking off.

Park Vs. Kim

ROK president Park Chung-hee, a former army lieutenant general, had seized power following a 1961 coup d’état. Under pressure from its American ally, South Korea held a presidential election on April 27, 1971, in which Park was opposed by a charismatic 46-year old member of the New People’s Party, Kim Dae-jung.

Park, who had served as a junior officer in the imperial army of Manchukuo in the waning months of World War II, was an old-school authoritarian and disinclined to relinquish his power to a young upstart with nebulous ideas about democracy.

Large numbers of ballots, including those of Kim and his wife, had been ruled illegal; and in two major cities where the opposition had its power base, administrative “oversights” resulted in many voters not receiving their ballots at all. After the official returns gave Park, with 6,340,000 votes, a clear win over Kim’s 5,400,000, Kim denounced Park’s victory as a fraud.

On October 17, 1972, Park ordered the national assembly dissolved and banned all political activities. Portions of the constitution were suspended, pending the promulgation of a new constitution by the end of 1972.

Kim’s reaction was to embark on a campaign aimed at discrediting Park by rallying the large overseas Korean communities in Japan and the U.S.

Kim had been issued an ultimatum ordering his return to Korea, which he rejected, saying it was a “trap” to halt his activities. On July 10, 1973, Kim flew from California to Japan, where his contacts had arranged a special six-month visa waiver on medical grounds.



Kim Dae-jung besieged by the Korean press following his abduction

Trouble ahead

Upon Kim’s arrival at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, a sympathizer warned him of rumors that Korean yakuza based in Japan were planning to make trouble, and he was persuaded to cancel an auto excursion in Yokohama on the weekend of August 4-5 out of abduction fears. By this time, Kim’s staff had become highly agitated, urging him not go anywhere without at least one bodyguard.

On August 7, Kim informed a Yomiuri Shimbun reporter of plans to organize a Japan-based group, tentatively named the National People’s Congress of Korean Democracy, which he planned to convene on August 15, the anniversary of Korea’s liberation.

On the morning of Wednesday, August 8, Kim and his secretary/bodyguard took a taxi from the Palace Hotel in Otemachi to the Hotel Grand Palace in Iidabashi for a meeting with Yang Il-dong, head of Korea’s Democratic Unification Party, who was in Tokyo for medical treatment.

Kim’s secretary escorted him to Yang’s room, number 2211, and then went downstairs to the lobby for a late breakfast while Kim, Yang and another Korean legislator named Kim Gyong-in, who was also Kim’s distant relative, discussed their country’s political situation. After taking lunch together in the room, Yang departed for the hospital.


About 1:15, Kim exited the room for his next appointment. As he stepped into the corridor with Kim Gyong- in, a group of five or six men pounced on him, hustling him into the adjoining room, 2210, while his relative was forced back into room 2211.

Forcing Kim down on the bed, the men held a chloroform-soaked handkerchief over his face until he became groggy. After several minutes the men dragged him to the hotel elevator, where he was shoved into a waiting car in the hotel basement.

Just before 2:00 pm Kim’s secretary/bodyguard went upstairs and learned of the abduction from the other Kim. How Kim’s abductors determined he would visit Yang’s hotel room that morning — information known only to a very few persons — is one of the many unsolved mysteries of the case. In their 1986 work Yakuza, authors David Kaplan and Alex Dubro quoted the Far Eastern Economic Review as citing “informed sources” that Tosei-kai gang head Chong Gwon-yong, also known as Hisayuki Machii, was a leading participant in the abduction.

By 3:15 pm, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police issued an emergency bulletin, and fearing that Kim’s abductors would attempt to spirit him out of the country, put the nation’s air and seaports on special alert.

No such attempts were made to set up checkpoints along the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway, however, which was exactly where Kim’s abductors headed.

Bound and gagged on the floor of the car, Kim was driven to an apartment believed to be in Kobe’s Higashinada Ward. There, he was relieved of his money, his Korean identity card, business cards and wristwatch, and given a different set of shoes and clothing. His bindings were reapplied and his face was swathed in gummed tape so that only his nose protruded.

At the port, Kim was transferred from a small motorboat to the 536-ton freighter “Dragon Gold,” out of Busan, which had been anchored in Osaka port from the end of July.


Some years later, the then-Minister of Justice Isaji Tanaka divulged that on the evening of the kidnapping, he’d been informed by a “certain superpower” that the American CIA had sent word to its Korean counterpart that it would not tolerate Kim’s assassination. The quickness in reacting was supposedly out of concerns that Kim would be weighed down and tossed overboard while at sea.

In his investigative work on the KCIA, journalist Kim Jong-sik wrote that on August 11, the U.S. CIA’s station chief in Seoul, Donald Gregg, certain that the KCIA was the culprit, wired the State Department that, “We have obtained evidence that the KCIA is responsible. Kim still appears to be alive and we intend to take measures to ensure his safe release.”

During his voyage, Kim was to learn he had at least one sympathizer among the ship’s crew, when one whispered reassuringly, “Someone is looking after you.”

On August 12, the ship carrying Kim landed at a small port adjacent to Busan. Kim was driven north in a van and taken to a house somewhere in Seoul where he was questioned by a young man as to why he had been engaging in anti-government activities outside the country, an accusation that Kim hotly denied.

The man said he had been ordered to drive Kim home. Shortly after 10 pm on August 13, after a 129-hour ordeal, Kim rang the doorbell of his home. His family reacted with jubilation and relief, with Kim’s wife, who had barely eaten or slept during the crisis, repeating, “It’s God’s mercy” over and over.



Tokyo Shimbun marks Kim Dae-jung’s death, 4th August 2009

US and Japanese media

On August 14, the front pages of every major newspaper in Japan carried photos of Kim, arms bandaged and looking lean and haggard, describing his ordeal to Korean reporters.

Three days later, Japanese newspapers reported that ROK Premier Kim Jong Pil had addressed a personal letter to Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka acknowledging Korean involvement in the abduction and extending “apologies to Prime Minister Tanaka, Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira and the Japanese people.”

On August 28, Japan’s ambassador to Seoul Torao Ushiroku visited Kim’s home for 20 minutes — the first encounter with any Japanese since his release.

By early September, a left thumbprint lifted by police from the hotel room was confirmed as belonging to Kim Dong-woon, First Secretary at the ROK embassy in Tokyo.

In March 1974, L.A. Times Tokyo bureau chief and FCCJ president Sam Jameson interviewed Kim at his home in Seoul.

“In the South, we had freedom, if not always bread. Now we no longer have freedom,” Kim told Jameson. He voiced his exasperation over the South Korean government’s refusal to permit him to travel abroad, owing to his being “a witness in the investigation of his kidnapping” — this despite his not having been questioned since the previous October.

Unanswered questions

Clearly the Kim abduction was a large-scale operation. Yet to this day it has never been fully established how high up the plot went, or whether the ultimate aim of the operation was to force Kim to return to Korea, or assassination. The Japanese government eventually decided not to push for a formal apology, allowing South Korea to save face. Some cynics have pointed to the Kim incident as a classic example of Japan’s reluctance to take a firm stance on international issues not related to its economic well being.

A decade after the incident, in August 1983, the police closed their investigation. It was not until April 1995, nearly 22 years after his ordeal, that Kim Dae-jung would once again set foot in Tokyo. This time he was provided with heavy security by his hosts.

On April 14, I was ushered into the FCCJ library and introduced to Kim. I informed him I was writing a book on Japan’s most famous postwar crimes including the story of his abduction. His subdued reaction, in halting English, clearly indicated he preferred to put the incident behind him.

Kim Dae-jung proved to be a hardy survivor in the rough-and-tumble world of ROK politics. He was elected president in 1998 and awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000. Alas, he did not live to see the unification of his homeland, passing away in 2009 at age 85.

Portions of this article appeared in Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan (Yenbooks, 1996).

Published in: November 2020

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