On a rainy night in fall 1996, a Japan-born tractor driver in North Korea dived into the fast and muddy current of the Yalu River on the border with China in a last-ditch attempt to escape the hunger and poverty that had plagued his family for decades.
A couple of months later, he returned to Japan for the first time in 36 years. Now, more than six years on, his desperate hope of helping his family remains unrealized.
“No public assistance is available for Japanese returnees from North Korea, and I can hardly make a living here,” said the 55-year-old man, who works as a security guard in Tokyo.
In recent years, he has appeared in the media under the pseudonym Shunsuke Miyazaki, hiding his face and having his voice electronically altered to avoid possible persecution by North Korean authorities against the wife, three children and sisters he left behind.
“My initial goal of helping my family out of hunger has been thwarted, and I feel I have yet to swim across the muddy border stream to the other side,” Miyazaki said in an interview with The Japan Times.
Last week, a 64-year-old Japanese woman who escaped North Korea in 2001 and was briefly held by Chinese authorities was thrust into the media spotlight as she made her first homecoming in 44 years.
But there are dozens of others who, like Miyazaki, have secretly returned to Japan from North Korea, disillusioned after moving decades ago to the secretive state in pursuit of a touted “paradise.”
Miyazaki, a native of Kawasaki, was 13 when he, his Korean father, Japanese mother and three sisters moved to North Korea in 1960.
Despite opposition from his in-laws, Miyazaki’s father decided to cross the Sea of Japan, heeding a call by Pyongyang and the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) for Koreans in Japan to emigrate to North Korea.
Between 1959 and 1984, a total of 93,340 Korean residents in Japan, or the Japanese spouses and offspring of some, moved to North Korea as part of the relocation program, which was based on an accord between the Red Cross societies of the two countries. The Japanese Red Cross Society estimates that around 1,800 Japanese wives went with their Korean husbands.
Many Koreans, including those who had no ancestral connection with the northern part of the peninsula, were lured by a campaign that promised a paradise on Earth, free from the poverty and harsh discrimination plaguing Korean residents of Japan, according to Miyazaki.
But word of a promised land proved false, especially for those who had no kin in Japan affluent enough to send regular aid packages of money and goods, Miyazaki said.
Throughout the 36 years he spent in North Korea, Miyazaki’s family suffered poverty and hunger. Japanese immigrants meanwhile found themselves living in harsh conditions and facing severe discrimination from North Korean authorities, who viewed them as an “enemy class,” he said.
Miyazaki and his parents and siblings settled in a tiny village in Hamgyong-namdo Province near the Sea of Japan coast. They were unable to find decent jobs. His mother died in 1973, his father in 1984.
“The Japanese government, which viewed Korean residents as a potential source of social unrest and assisted Pyongyang’s ‘repatriation’ campaign, is equally responsible for our plight,” he said.
In the 1990s, natural disasters exacerbated North Korea’s woes, creating a severe food shortage. Miyazaki and his family often had to survive on a diet of weeds, roots and tree bark — a situation that ultimately pushed Miyazaki, who had driven tractors at several communal farms and worked at factories, to flee the country to find a way to help his family.
Exhausted by his swim for freedom, Miyazaki passed out on the Chinese shore of the Yalu River, where he was found by an ethnic Korean living in China who took him to the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, northeastern China.
Consular officials negotiated with Chinese authorities and secretly flew him to Narita airport aboard a plane specially chartered for him in October 1996.
Last December, the Foreign Ministry acknowledged publicly for the first time that in recent years it has helped dozens of Japanese and former Korean residents of Japan to return after escaping North Korea. Miyazaki said at least 20 people have returned to Japan in circumstances similar to his own.
“It was the most exciting moment in my life, and I am full of gratitude for my home country for taking such a diplomatic risk to help just one person,” he said.
Despite their father’s ancestry, Miyazaki said, he and his sisters have always considered themselves Japanese.
Miyazaki had hoped the Japanese government might do something to help his family, but such hopes were soon dashed.
The Foreign Ministry’s assistance program consisted of arranging for Miyazaki to be temporarily accommodated at a facility for alcoholics and drug addicts in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. It refused to provide him with any welfare services or employment assistance, and told him to stay silent and out of sight for at least three years.
Miyazaki’s limited Japanese-language skills made finding a job difficult, and he often depended on a diet of expired food donated by local convenience stores.
Miyazaki has held down his job as a security guard for the past two years. He earns about 160,000 yen a month, but much of this is spent on living expenses and medical fees.
To date, Miyazaki has sent 300,000 yen to his family. The money, sent under another pseudonym, came from his savings and royalties from an autobiography he published in Japan in 2000.
Relatives on his mother’s side in Japan have refused to help him in any way.
“My mother’s family virtually cut their kinship with us when she married my father, because of their prejudice against Koreans,” he said. “I see the same sort of attitude from the Japanese government and general public toward those who emigrated to North Korea during Pyongyang’s campaign.”
In March, Miyazaki will be out of a job. He said his employer has informed him that his contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of this month. Miyazaki said he will apply for public living assistance as a last resort.
Helping his family in North Korea will become more difficult, he added.
Miyazaki urged the government to offer the same kind of assistance to returnees from North Korean as was offered to the Japanese who were left behind in China as children in the chaotic closing days of World War II and have come to Japan decades later.
The South Korean government has accepted more than 2,000 asylum seekers from North Korea and offers various welfare and employment assistance to such people, he said.
Miyazaki said he will reveal his real name in a more detailed autobiography that he is currently working on.
Through the book, he hopes to raise money to help his wife, who was ill when he last saw her in 1996. She has written to him just once since his escape, even though he has transferred money to his family on several occasions, he said.
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