Desperate to save his sons and other relatives, a 56-year-old escapee from North Korea hatched a bold plan to free them by smuggling himself back into the country.
With 800,000 yen in his pocket, the man, known in Japan by the pen name Shunsuke Miyazaki, flew to China in August and made his way to the North Korean border on the Yalu River, which he first crossed in 1996 during his own escape — an ordeal that he published as a memoir in 2000.
But North Korean border patrols were massive, and he was forced to turn to Chinese brokers, who wanted 1.7 million yen for each person spirited across the border.
He had confirmed that his sons and other relatives were alive in the poverty-stricken state through a letter from his sister last March, and he was now too desperate to foresee the tragic outcome of the daring rescue operation.
He came back Japan to arrange the money and returned to China in September to help his two sons, one of his sisters and her two sons flee from the poverty-stricken state.
In the end, he was less than half successful: He helped one sister come to Japan in October, but possibly put the others in mortal danger.
Since returning home, Miyazaki has blamed the mass media for fouling up his rescue operation by bringing his activities to the attention of Chinese authorities, who considered them illegal.
Meanwhile, his 54-year-old sister, who returned to Japan in November for the first time in 43 years, is gravely worried about her two sons and other relatives she left behind in North Korea, and even regrets having returned here alone, according to the family’s supporters.
The woman currently lives alone on minimal government aid in an apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo. Her husband was believed killed in an accident in the North in which a military truck carrying explosives blew up in 1995, and her youngest son is now blind due to malnutrition.
“I will not allow myself luxury of any kind, including nice food or warm clothes, until my sons safely come to Japan,” a supporter quoted the woman as saying.
Miyazaki and his supporters are now trying to confirm the safety of the remaining relatives.
He and his three sisters were born to a Korean father and Japanese mother in Kanagawa Prefecture and have Japanese citizenship.
Like tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans in Japan and their relatives, the entire family emigrated to North Korea in 1960 in a resettlement program organized by the Red Cross societies of the two countries for Koreans who came or were brought to Japan before and during the war.
But life in what was touted as “Paradise on Earth” was anything but.
Miyazaki’s mother, a victim of poverty and discrimination, died in 1973, followed by his father in 1984. His youngest sister and her two sons starved to death in 1997 — soon after Miyazaki’s getaway from North Korea.
Miyazaki’s rescue operation finally took place in mid-October and he was reunited with one of his remaining sisters, who crossed the Yalu with the help of the brokers and arrived in the northern Chinese town of Changbai on the night of Oct. 18.
“My sister could not speak, except repeatedly crying ‘my brother’ while holding my neck,” Miyazaki recently told The Japan Times as he recounted his experience.
The pair contacted the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, about 350 km distant, and traveled there by train as instructed. They came under the protective custody of consular officials outside a designated train station in Shenyang in the early morning on Oct. 21.
After taking her to Shenyang, Miyazaki was planning to return to the border to wait for his own sons and the sister’s sons to arrive.
But his adventure ended when he entered the consulate. The officials there decided not to let him return to the border.
According to Miyazaki, the officials told him it was highly likely that his activities had become known to Chinese authorities because of media reports on the pair’s adventure, including a TV report that exposed his face.
In response to the flock of North Koreans seeking asylum in foreign embassies and consulates in China in recent years, Chinese public safety authorities have reportedly been buttoning down areas near the North Korean border.
If escapees are arrested and found to have no citizenship other than that of North Korea, they are usually sent back across the border despite the high risk of persecution. Escapees with citizenship in other countries, like Miyazaki’s sister, can be arrested for entering China illegally.
Miyazaki had to forgo returning to the border to retrieve the rest of his relatives, and came back to Japan on Nov. 7 with his sister.
He ended up giving the Chinese brokers 4 million yen, much of which had come from his supporters in Japan.
Miyazaki and his supporters blame the Japanese media for reporting on his secret trip to Shenyang and thereby making his activities known to Chinese authorities.
On Oct. 20, a Fuji TV news program reported that a female Japanese escapee from North Korea was expected to come under protective custody of the consulate in Shenyang the following day.
When the pair came in contact with consular officials Oct. 21, reporters from NHK TV were present, interviewing Miyazaki. The public broadcaster repeatedly showed the video footage during its news programs later in the day.
While the sister covered her face with a coat and was unidentifiable in the footage, Miyazaki’s face was clearly visible with captions identifying him as the woman’s brother. It was the first time Miyazaki’s face appeared in the media since he escaped North Korea seven years ago.
Newspapers and wire services picked up on the story that day, although they did not publish the pair’s faces. The following day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda officially announced that the consulate had placed a 54-year-old Japanese woman in protective custody.
With Miyazaki’s operation halted prematurely, it is not clear what has happened to his other relatives. If they made it to the border, they would likely have been captured by a patrol and persecuted. But his supporters said there is a chance they are alive because the Chinese brokers — who are often unreliable — may not have fulfilled their end of the bargain.
A spokesman for NHK said the broadcaster judged that it had obtained consent from Miyazaki to show his face when he said yes after the reporter asked him if he felt relieved to be in a safe haven. The spokesman said the report focused on the protection of the woman, and NHK took her privacy into full account when reporting the news.
He rejected Miyazaki’s claim that the report effectively aborted his efforts to save the four remaining relatives or even endangered their lives. He suggested that Chinese authorities must have known about Miyazaki’s activities because other Japanese media also reported on them, and because he has been publicly vocal about his efforts.
An official at the Foreign Ministry meanwhile expressed his personal regret over the news coverage, saying that reporting on escapees from North Korea in ways that can identify them may directly affect the lives of their relatives left behind.
From 1959 to 1984, a total of 93,340 Korean residents of Japan, their Japanese spouses and offspring moved to North Korea during the resettlement campaign. The Japanese Red Cross Society estimates that some 1,800 Japanese wives, like Miyazaki’s mother, went there with their Korean husbands.
Since Miyazaki’s escape in October 1996, around 50 people, including Japanese wives of Koreans, their children and ethnic Korean residents born and raised in Japan, have left North Korea and are now in Japan.