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Victims seek justice for North Korea's false promise of 'paradise on Earth'

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People wave North Korean flags before boarding ships bound for North Korea at Niigata port in Japan, in this file photo taken in December 1959. More than 93,000 people, mostly ethnic Koreans living in Japan, headed to the North under its resettlement program between 1959 and 1984. Courtesy of Kim Deog-young
People wave North Korean flags before boarding ships bound for North Korea at Niigata port in Japan, in this file photo taken in December 1959. More than 93,000 people, mostly ethnic Koreans living in Japan, headed to the North under its resettlement program between 1959 and 1984. Courtesy of Kim Deog-young

Japanese court acknowledges propaganda by Kim regime as criminal offense

By Jung Min-ho

Eiko Kawasaki was just 17 when she made the most critical decision of her life.

She joined North Korea's resettlement program that promised a "paradise on Earth" in the country where she felt she truly belonged.

As an ethnic Korean living in Japan, Kawasaki believed the message promoted by "Chongryon," a pro-Pyongyang organization based in Tokyo, and boarded a ship bound for the self-proclaimed "socialist utopia" ― where she was told there was no discrimination against people like her and everything from education to food would be free.

The day she arrived at Chongjin, a North Korean port city, she realized everything she was told was a lie. But it was too late. Her decision was irreversible. The regime did not let the settlers leave what she found out quickly was the exact opposite of paradise. There, Kawasaki survived 43 years, before escaping back to Japan in 2003.

"In just two months, I started to contemplate suicide," Kawasaki, now 80, said during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul, Thursday. "Some people who went there with me already killed themselves, only to be treated as if they were not humans. Trucks came to move the bodies and no one knew where they were heading."

She was among 93,000 people, mostly ethnic Koreans, who left Japan between 1959 and 1984 under the resettlement program. As a result of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, they lost their Japanese citizenship.

People on ships bound for North Korea wave at a crowd at Niigata port in Japan, in this Dec. 14, 1959, file photo. Courtesy of Kojima Hidenori
People on ships bound for North Korea wave at a crowd at Niigata port in Japan, in this Dec. 14, 1959, file photo. Courtesy of Kojima Hidenori

When they arrived in North Korea, their illusion, formed by propaganda material that was filled with deceptively alluring images and blatant lies, was shattered by the stark reality of life there. North Koreans were starving and did not have basic freedoms, which the new arrivals had taken for granted in Japan. Moreover, they were labeled as "jjokbari" (a racial slur referring to Japanese people), who constitute the lowest class in what she described as a living hell.

"Those who came from Japan were not allowed to work at the government or its agencies … People looked at us with a cynical eye. Some were falsely accused of being spies and treated as such, meaning that they were beaten, sent to political camps or even killed without clearly knowing why," Kawasaki said. "After the death of founder Kim Il-sung in 1994, I thought all this pain would be finally over soon, only to be disappointed with the continuation of the oppressive rule and the terrible famine afterward. I thought death would be better than life there. So I decided to escape."

She is one of only a lucky few who managed to make it to Japan or South Korea. Yet most of them, if not all, still suffer from traumatic memories of the North and miss their families they they had to leave behind.

In recent years, Kawasaki and several other victims have been demanding justice at courts in Japan and the International Court of Justice for the lies that led them to make the wrong decision, trying to hold accountable the institutions allegedly involved in creating those lies and implementing the scheme.

In March, the Tokyo District Court rejected their case seeking compensation from the North Korean government and their relatives' right to return to Japan. But Kawasaki said the ruling was meaningful because it acknowledged, for the first time, that the false promise, of living in a "paradise on Earth," was a criminal offense. This was, she added, only the beginning of their fight for justice and they will continue to build their cases on it.

Eiko Kawasaki, second from left, speaks about her experience in North Korea during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Jung Min-ho
Eiko Kawasaki, second from left, speaks about her experience in North Korea during a press conference at the National Assembly in Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Jung Min-ho

'Seoul, Tokyo should be united against human rights violations'

When the Korean Peninsula was divided after World War II and the Korean War (1950-53), hundreds of thousands of Korean residents in Japan ― many of whom were forcibly brought there as laborers during Japan's colonial rule over Korea (1910-45) ― found themselves confused about their national identity. They were no longer Japanese nationals (although they received permanent residency statuses) and their birth country was divided into two.

After its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan found itself with about 600,000 foreigners inside its borders. Ethnic Koreans suffered from discrimination and a lack of financial opportunities. So when the North Korean government said it would welcome them, hoping to fill a shortage of workers, the Japanese government embraced the idea quickly, according to Kim Deog-young, a filmmaker working on the forthcoming documentary, "A Strange Paradise," and one of the speakers at the press conference.

"The ethnic Koreans were seen as troublemakers in Japan and could not get decent jobs at state organizations. Some reports say the unemployment rate among them was eight times higher than that of Japanese citizens at the time … For the Japanese government, they were a big political problem," Kim told The Korea Times.

Many were searching for an escape and North Korea provided it ― with the support from the Japanese government and the Red Cross, which painted the program as a humanitarian one. This is why Japanese politicians pay little attention to the issue even though more than 8,000 Japanese citizens were among the victims, he added.

The victims of North Korea's deceitful resettlement program hold a rally near the Tokyo District Court in central Tokyo, in this March 23 file photo. Courtesy of Lee So-ra
The victims of North Korea's deceitful resettlement program hold a rally near the Tokyo District Court in central Tokyo, in this March 23 file photo. Courtesy of Lee So-ra

Thus, for many victims and their families, it is difficult to understand the Japanese politicians who bring up the issue of the 17 Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea whenever they have a chance, but say nothing about their citizens victimized by North Korea's resettlement program.

The victims lament that their unique identity as ethnic Koreans living in Japan makes it hard to motivate any politicians to take action. The North's regime takes no blame and still claims to be a "paradise on Earth." The South Korean government, which protested the program, believes it is an issue between Pyongyang and Tokyo, while the Japanese government believes it is a matter for Koreans to resolve.

"I think it is, above all, an issue of human rights, which is supposed to unite South Korea and Japan against serious rights violations committed by North Korea," Kim said. "I hope the two countries (South Korea and Japan) will cooperate to resolve it and repair frayed relations in doing so."



Jung Min-ho mj6c2@koreatimes.co.kr


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