A group of 52 Japanese women trying to establish friendly relations with North Korea boarded the controversial ferry Mangyongbong-92 for a 12-day visit to North Korea that ended Sept. 6.
The group was led by former House of Councilors member Sumiko Shimizu, and this writer accompanied them.
During the 30-hour voyage from Niigata to Wonsan, an executive of the Niigata office of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) offered to become a guide for the group, saying, “I will open the whole of the ship to you.”
Except for pictures of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and his son, current leader Kim Jong Il, and slogans displayed in various parts of the ferry, it is an ordinary passenger ship, complete with cabins and lounges.
“There is nothing to be ashamed of, although various suspicions have been raised,” the Chongryun official claimed.
A 35-year-old crewman said, “It pains me when we are told to ‘get out’ every time we enter Niigata.”
The 9,672-ton ferry runs between Niigata and Wonsan on an irregular basis. Japanese authorities allege North Korea has used the vessel for espionage and for carrying illicit cargoes.
Last year, the transport ministry carried out port state control inspections of the ferry.
In inspections in August, four minor safety infractions were found. Nothing amiss was found in inspections a month later.
After a dinner aboard ship, the Japanese group held an exchange meeting with about 100 North Korean residents of Japan who were on the voyage.
Some of the female crew members, who wore uniforms in the daytime, changed into traditional yellow and green ch’ima chogori costumes in the evening and sang songs for the passengers.
Some of the Japanese women also danced with students from Korean University in Tokyo, sparking cheers from those present.
In Pyongyang, the Japanese group stayed at the Potong Kang Hotel, located beside a river. One evening, some group members drank beer with Koreans around a table in the hotel bar.
A North Korean guide said, “People’s anti-Japanese feelings are very” strong. A tense mood ensued when the topic of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese nationals was raised.
In response, the guide talked about Japan’s abduction and enslavement of Koreans during Japan’s colonial rule. The issue of postwar Japanese compensation was also raised.
The conversation ended when one of those present said, “Let’s end these talks.” Another guide sitting at the next table said: “Diplomatic normalization is necessary. Let’s join hands together for that.” With his remark, the meeting ended.
At a meeting of Japanese and North Korean women at a culture hall on the fourth day of the visit, an appeal for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula and diplomatic normalization between Japan and the North was adopted.
Local media splashed the news, and a female interpreter said, “We are pleased that a favorable atmosphere has been created.”
There were no chances for the Japanese women to walk freely in the capital, as they were chiefly moved by bus. From the bus could be seen trees and women talking and smiling, some eating ice cream.
“The city and people have become brighter,” reckoned a group member, who has visited the capital many times.
The group also visited a clothing plant where some 600 people work. Some of the sewing machines were inoperable due to a power shortage. Plant officials said the situation would become normal next year.
T-shirts for export to China and Eastern Europe, were displayed at the plant.
“We also want orders from Japan,” said plant manager Cho Song Hwan.