HIROSHIMA – Lee Sil Gun, a 77-year-old Korean living in Hiroshima, has struggled for the past 30 years to help North Korean atomic bomb survivors yet to receive any government support due to the lack of diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.
Lee has never given up, even during the time when North Korea had yet to admit the existence of atomic bomb victims.
But recently his efforts have hit a snag amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s recent missile launches.
“We were planning to visit North Korea to make a detailed investigation into the North Korean victims, possibly before the Aug. 6 (anniversary of the atomic bombing), but the missile launches blew up everything,” said Lee, who is an atomic bomb survivor and heads the Council of Atom-Bombed Koreans in Hiroshima Prefecture.
It isn’t just the missile launches. A number of other issues — including the abduction of Japanese nationals and North Korea’s nuclear threat — have worked to stall progress on the issue of North Korean atomic bomb victims since the Japanese government dispatched its first mission to North Korea in 2001 to investigate the matter.
“I get jittery — feeling like being put back to square one,” Lee said of the postponed visit. “I’m in a deadlock for a while.”
As of late 2000, there were 928 atomic bomb survivors confirmed alive in North Korea, according to the Japanese government mission, which contacted the association of North Korean atomic bomb survivors.
According to a South Korean atomic bomb survivors association, an estimated 70,000 Koreans either died in or survived the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. They were in Japan either to escape poverty or were forcibly brought in as laborers under the 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
While the Japanese government has become more flexible in recent years about backing overseas atomic bomb survivors, no support has been given to North Korean victims, Lee said.
Atomic bomb survivors living outside Japan became eligible in 2003 to receive health allowances, as long as they hold certificates issued in Japan proving they are victims.
In the preceding 30 years, overseas survivors were not covered by the Atomic Bomb Victims Relief Law.
Outside the law’s framework, the government has supported overseas survivors with travel expenses to visit Japan for medical treatment or to get a certificate.
It also finances medical treatment for survivors at their local hospitals.
But few North Korean survivors hold the certificate, according to Lee, while an official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry indicated that providing them with support is difficult given the lack of diplomatic ties.
“We have no time to wait for political intervention to resolve the issue, given that North Korean A-bomb survivors are 73 or older on average. Humanitarian measures are needed,” Lee said.
He said that when he visited North Korea in 2002 as a member of a private research delegation to conduct a survey on atomic bomb survivors there, the North Korean survivors told him they wanted to be treated the same as the Japanese survivors
“First they said, ‘We’re living comfortable lives for the sake of (our) dear leader,’ ” Lee said. “But after I yelled and said I didn’t come to hear such rhetoric, they started to explain their plight — how they couldn’t receive any treatment, how they burned sulfur and used the smoke to sterilize their wounds.”
Kenichi Takagi, a lawyer who led the 2002 delegation, said that building a medical facility in North Korea to treat the hibakusha and providing medicine could be accomplished without diplomatic ties.
“If Japanese leaders use their connections with North Korea, there are measures that can be implemented immediately. As long as support is given in the form of a hospital, for example, it would be absurd to worry that it would be used for military purposes,” Takagi said.
“It’s unfair that people are treated differently just because the countries they returned to are different,” he added.
Lawmakers remain reluctant to work on the issue, apparently reflecting their suspicion that winning public support would be difficult.
Tetsuo Saito, a member of New Komeito and head of a lawmakers’ group working to support overseas atomic bomb survivors, said helping the North Korean victims has become untouchable.
“The health ministry seems to have no drive because there’s no guarantee that it can have access to individuals . . . progress will be expected only after diplomatic ties are established,” he said.
Saito also said there has not been an atmosphere conducive to discussing North Korean issues in his lawmakers group.
But Lee is not completely isolated, as South Korean survivors are stepping up to give him a helping hand.
Kwak Kwi Hoon, 82, a South Korean who won a landmark court ruling on the right of overseas survivors to receive benefits from Japan, said he is “disconsolate” that North Korean victims are not benefiting, even though most impediments involving the treatment of atomic bomb victims have been solved after the Japanese government lost in lawsuits concerning the issue.
Kwak, former head of an association for South Korean atomic bomb victims, criticized North Korea for its July 5 missile launches but added that the issue of North Korean atomic bomb survivors should be dealt with separately from other problems between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
“We’re in a situation in which atomic bomb survivors’ rights are neglected, swept away by the political storm,” he said. “Some Japanese people think that seeking support for North Korean survivors is equal to taking an affirmative stance on the abduction issue, but it’s a completely different issue.”