Ethnic Koreans in Japan Victimized by the North Korean Regime’s Fraud
Kang Cheol Hwan
(Reporter, the Korean Unification Research Institute of Chosun Ilbo)
When the Mangyeongbongho left the port of Nigata, Japan for North Korea, on December 14, 1959, nobody could predict what was in store for the thousands of people. The 3,942 passengers on board were ethnic Koreans living in Japan. They did not have a slightest idea that this trip would turn their lives into a life in hell and cause such pain in their remaining family members in Japan.
“Paradise on earth,” “self-reliant democracy,” “the Great Leader
Kim Il Sung,” “free health care,” “free education,” and “houses
to everyone and jobs to everyone!” This propaganda sounded sweet
especially to those Koreans who had lived in a discriminatory
Japanese society with their national identity often in question.
The Japanese media as well as the pro-Pyongyang General Association
of Korean Residents in Japan, better known as Chochongnyon joined
forces in beatifying North Korea, so even successful settlers
came to have interest in North Korea through this far-fetched
The Home Country: a Dream Turned into a Nightmare
I still have a vivid memory of the contrast between the two pictures taken right before boarding and after disembarking in 1963. My grandfather was so happy about going home, but his face turned ashen as soon as we arrived at the port of Cheongjin. He couldn’t say a word when his children protested. What made my grandparents even more speechless was the protest by their former employees. Most of them came to North Korea because of my grandparents’ persuasion but the North Korean authorities sent his former employees and workers at the gambling parlor to mines, coal mines and remote countryside.
When these Koreans arrived in Cheongjin, North Korea, they felt deceived by the shabby appearance of North Korean people and the rigid atmosphere. Those who came earlier did not welcome, either. This kind of report was conveyed to Japan, which caused the number of repatriation to dwindle. The massive scale of repatriation came to an end in November 1967. The North Korean ship transported 88,611 Koreans from Japan on 155 trips until then. However, Chochongnyon persistently persuaded ethnic Koreans in Japan, especially businessmen and industry people into investing in North Korea appealing to their patriotism. Under the cause of this patriotic assistance, the businessmen were enticed into moving all the factory facilities. This continued until the early 1970s. The total number of repatriated Koreans thus reached 93,000 around that time.
The repatriation project of North Korea was a great boon to the Kim Il Sung regime. It could improve its image in the international community including South Korea. It is needless to say that the inflow of capital and technology that accompanied the repatriation gave a boost to the flagging North Korean economy.
Nevertheless, the Koreans repatriated from Japan were no longer welcomed in North Korea from the 1970s as the dictatorial rule by Kim Il Sung was reinforced and Kim Jong Il announced “Ten Principles of Establishing Uil Ideology.” The North Korean regime was wary of the influence of repatriated Koreans on the North Korean society. The Kim Il Sung regime was concerned that North Korean residents may dream of Japan and negatively influenced by capitalism. Under the circumstances, cruel oppression started in full scale when some former Japan residents’ crime organization created a problem in North Korea.
It is said that Kim Il Sung was shocked on his tour of Geomdeok Mine because one of the Japanese wives of Koreans showed up and appealed that she wanted to return to Japan. This incidence is said to have taken place in Hamgyeongnamdo Province in the 1960s. Shortly afterward, there was another event that shocked the North Korean regime: the first demonstration in Pyongyang ever in North Korea’s history, which was also led by Japanese wives. The series of events triggered strict ideological inspection by the North Korean regime.
In the early 1970s, the North Korean regime purged those who did not restrain from speaking freely and who led a life against the ideology of socialism. In the late 1970s, however, opponents of Chochongnyon Chairman Han Deok Su were purged and sent to detention camps. Former big shots of Chochongnyon people including the famous opera singer Kim Young Gil, Vice Chairman Kim Byeong Shik, Secretary of Education of Chochongnyon Han Hak Su went missing and their families were detained in political prisoners’ camp in Yondeok-gun, Hamgyeong Province. The former high-ranking Chochongnyon who stayed in Pyongyang went missing one after another in the 1970s. There was a thorough purge of these people. The North Korean regime charged them of espionage or anti-revolution, which was incomprehensible to them. Most of the detainee were executed or died of malnutrition.
Out of around 5,000 detained in No. 15 detention camp in Yodeok-gun,
a third were family members of the former upper echelon of Chochongnyon.
Most of them did not even know what crimes they were charged of.
It rubbed salt into their injury that they had to stay in the
political prisoner’s camp for they already regretted of having
come to North Korea deceived.
The North Did Not Consider Them as Compatriots but a Source of Money
In 1985, Kim Jong Il announced a special order to release the family members of former Chochongnyon leaders detained in Yodeok Camp. It was not an act of good will. It was a result of Kim’s political calculation. Diplomatic ties with Japan were at stake, and protests by visitors from Japan finally made him step back a little. Chochongnyon had reported protest and complaints of the visitors who could not meet their family on their visit to North Korea. Most of the repatriated Koreans detained in Yodeok were finally released, but the “political offenders,” who were kept at the reformation center in Seungho-ri, Pyongyang did not survive.
Around 1989, I had a chance to visit my relatives in Musan-gun, Hamgyeongbukdo Province. About 300 households lived there after having been expelled by the Kim Il Sung regime upon their entry into the North Korean society. When they heard that I was released from Yodeok Camp, tens of people came to see me with their family members’ pictures. But I could not identify any of them. I assumed they might have been detained at other political prisoners’ camps.
Since the 1980s, the ethnic Koreans repatriated from Japan have seen their status improving in time with the resumption of Korean expatriates’ visit to North Korea. Chochongnyon-related businessmen invested in factories, technology and others for the sake of their families in North Korea. It is then that North Korea actively started joint ventures with Korean expatriates in Japan. Most of the modern factories were invested by ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
Though the factories were built by their relatives in Japan, the repatriated Koreans were given second most responsible jobs at best. In addition, profits were controlled by the state and party officials demanded bribery. Only a few investors could bear this and it was solely for the sake of their families in the North. Under these circumstances, most of the factories were bound to fail.
Repatriated Koreans, who had money, could pay their way out of the political prisoners’ camp or received leniency from the North Korean authorities. Conscious of Chochongnyon capital, the Kim regime improved treatment of the repatriated Koreans by placing them at managerial positions in government administration or number two positions at their workplaces. However, those who have received no remittance from Japan had to suffer far worse living conditions than ordinary North Korean residents. Only those who had money could receive humane treatment.
Since the late 1990s, however, the Japanese economy has been
in long term recession, which resulted in the decrease of remittance
to North Korea. Against this backdrop, the repatriated Koreans
have seen their social status at danger again. That may explain
the sudden increase of the repatriated Koreans among defectors
from North Korea in recent years.
The Repatriated Koreans Need Attention of the International Community
People make a critical decision at certain points of their lives. If the decision determines the rest of their life, it definitely requires serious deliberation. It is unthinkable to take a risk of moving to an unknown place. However, the 100,000 Koreans repatriated from Japan did not consider it an adventure because they believed the propaganda that North Korea was a paradise on earth and their home country, where they could realize their dreams. In this way, they ended up as victims of the North Korean scheme. The one time decision jeopardized their whole life, put simply.
Excluding the separated families in North and South Korea, the repatriated Koreans must have suffered the most painful hardship living in despair for decades. They wished only if they had known about the reality of North Korea beforehand. Young children and the 1000 Japanese wives of the repatriated Koreans were all victims of the North’s deception.
In the meantime, Chochongnyon has turned a blind eye to the fact that 100,000 got imprisoned or missing, and has only served as North Korea’s puppet. And the repatriated Koreans’ families in Japan have had no recourse not least because they are concerned about the safety of their family members in North Korea. From the North’s perspective, Kim Jong Il’s hostage policy worked effectively in the Korean expatriates’ community in Japan.
The North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese people has recently become a hot issue in Japan. I am sorry to say this, but the severity of this issue pales when compared with the sufferings and extortions the former Korean expatriates in Japan went through over the years.
If they had had objective information and media coverage, no one, not a single one, would have gone to North Korea. It is well-known that the Japanese government wanted to get rid of this ethnic group of people and the media reported North Korean situation without verifying the fact, which resulted in the fatal misinformation. I am not saying this merely out of nationalistic point of view. I am speaking on the ground of universal value of human life and human rights. The North Korean regime is the most responsible party for the tragedy of the repatriated Koreans, but the Japanese government and the media should acknowledge their responsibility for leaving 100,000 people in the predicament.
I am encouraged by the fact that attention is currently drawn to the human rights situation in North Korea as the kidnapped Japanese have received media coverage and national attention. At this juncture, the Japanese government should proactively work to find out what exactly happened to the numerous missing Koreans repatriated from Japan.
The reason the Kim Jong Il is trying to press ahead with establishing diplomatic ties with Japan is financial compensation he can get for maintaining the regime. Unless Kim makes an apology and cooperates for fact-finding of the missing of thousands of the repatriated Koreans, there is no rationale of the Japanese government’s compensation plan. Nor does it have to make compensations to the North. The Japanese government should take time before rushing into normalization of diplomatic ties.
Some have defected from the North to South Korea and Japan risking their own lives. They recently set up an organization to resolve the repatriated people’s issue. They plan to work with several non-governmental organizations in Japan to let the world know not only about the repatriated Koreans’ issues but the human rights conditions in North Korea they personally experienced. They are also committed to the democratization of North Korea. I would like to appeal to especially those who have participated in pro-democracy movement in South Korea that democracy should be also established in North Korea. Finally, I would also like to once again call for the Japanese government’s cooperation in resolving this issue.