After 43 years trapped in North Korea, a survivor fights back

“I never thought I’d be able to return. A lot of the people that boarded those ships ended up dying in North Korea. Now that I’m back, I want to alleviate the sorrow of those who were left behind by conducting a thorough investigation about the repatriations. Right now, at this very moment, somebody’s loved one is dying in North Korea. This person’s relatives will never get the chance to say goodbye.” 
Kawasaki Aiko is currently the head of an NGO that helps defectors in their attempt to set up their new lives in Japan. She is also behind a major international effort to conduct an investigation to discover the truth behind the repatriations. (For more background on the repatriations, read the first article in this series: “Tricked into return: the 90,000+ ethnic Koreans in Japan who were repatriated to North Korea.”)  
Kawasaki Aiko is extremely busy these days, preoccupied with the task of bringing these issues to the public’s attention. In the process, she has become a nuisance to the North Korean authorities, Chongryon (the pro-Pyongyang federation of Korean residents in Japan), and the Japanese government. That’s because she insists that the repatriations are not some piece of forgotten history that can be easily swept under the rug, but a collection of human rights infractions that continue to this day. 
In her pursuit of the repatriation investigation, Mrs. Aiko has received a series of phone calls from people threatening to kill her. Although receiving such intimidating calls in the middle of the night is terrifying, Mrs. Aiko says she won’t let these disturbances deter her. Indeed, she has become strengthened in her resolve to dedicate her life to this cause. 
Kawasaki Aiko took the 15th homecoming voyage from Japan to North Korea in April 1960 and escaped from the country 43 years later in March of 2003. When she boarded the ship at just 17 years of age, she was completely alone but determined to learn more about Socialist North Korea. 
Up until the moment that the SS Toborsk left the port, Mrs. Aiko had no suspicions about Chongryon’s claims that North Korea was a “Socialist paradise on earth.” But her excitement quickly turned to anxiety when the boat got into the open waters and an order rang out demanding that all passengers throw away any food that they had brought with them from Japan. Mrs. Aiko began to have misgivings about her decision. 
When the boat pulled into Chongjin harbor and Mrs. Aiko first saw the state of affairs in North Korea, this anxiety and questioning turned into despair. North Koreans came to greet the arriving boat. The skin on their faces was ghostly white and they wore cheap ragged clothes. Chongryon’s propaganda about a socialist paradise was clearly a lie.
Mrs. Aiko met with Daily NK in Tokyo last month to explain the problematic nature of the repatriation program in a point by point manner. At the event, she appealed to the international community, including the South Korean government. 

“When the repatriation program was in operation, we were not told about the true condition of North Korea,” she said. “Instead, we were fed propaganda promising us a paradise and then we were loaded onto ships. The Japanese government and Chongryon were aware of this deception, but they continued the repatriations nonetheless. This is a clear cut case of human rights violation.”    

Using this line of argumentation, Mrs. Aiko joined forces with Japanese lawyers for 10 months to prepare an application for human rights aid to conduct an investigation on the repatriations. She submitted that application to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations last year. In the application, heartfelt apologies were sought from all organizations directly involved in the repatriations, including the Japanese government, the North Korean authorities, the Japanese Red Cross, the North Korean Red Cross, the International Red Cross, etc. The application also calls for the liberation of the victims and their families. 

“Because the repatriations problem is a humanitarian issue, North Korea will simply pretend like the problem doesn’t exist. That is why the UN should formally handle the situation. If freedom of movement is granted, this could be an important way to slowly wedge open the closed door to North Korea,” she explained.
The following day, Daily NK accompanied Mrs. Aiko to Niigita, where 56 years ago she rode an express train through the city in order to board the repatriation ship as a 17-year-old girl. 
Decadres later, as she gazed quietly out the window she remembered how she felt the last time she took the journey to Niigita and reflected on how she felt when she landed in North Korea and began her life there. The most difficult thing to endure, she said, was being apart from her family. No one told her that when she said goodbye to her family before getting on the ship, that would be the last time she would ever get to see them. 

Although she missed her family profoundly, Mrs. Aiko’s biggest worry was that they might follow her to North Korea. The only way to get in touch with her family was through letters, but these were censored by the authorities, precluding her from cautioning them to stay away in a straightforward manner. 

“The only thing I could do was use ambiguous language to trick the censors and get my point across. I wrote, ‘When my youngest sibling (10 years old at the time) gets married, let’s meet.’ Then I said, ‘Until our homeland gets united, no matter how hard it is, stay in Japan.’ Using this kind of roundabout speech, I let them know that they should stay far away from North Korea,” she explained.

When the train finally arrived at Niigita, Mrs. Aiko wandered about wordlessly. After a period of silence, she said, “I remember it like it was yesterday. The moment the boat took off,” recalling her bubbling excitement at the time, shaking hands with anyone and everyone around her. 
“None of us who were on that ship thought that would be the last time we would see Japan. We all believed we would be able to return. In that one moment, our lives were transformed. I made such a foolish choice.” 
Then Mrs. Aiko broke down into tears, saying between sobs, “I don’t know how much time I have left. I want to spend that time fighting for the people who haven’t yet had the chance to be reunited with their families.”
To be continued…
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