North Korea talks should also discuss escapees, forum told


OSAKA — The plight of Japanese citizens and Japanese-born Koreans who voluntarily went to North Korea in the 1960s but escaped to return to Japan is a human rights issue that needs to be included in the six-party talks on denuclearizing North Korea, a symposium in Osaka concluded Sunday.

Sponsored by the Amnesty International Korea Team and the Osaka-based Korea NGO Center, the symposium addressed recent efforts by the international community to deal with North Korea in the wake of its October nuclear test. Panelists included academic experts on North Korea, Japan-based Korean nongovernmental organizations and freelance journalists who cover Korean residents in Japan and North Korea itself.

With the six-party talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, possibly resuming next month, Teruo Komaki, head of Kokushikan University’s 21st Century Asia Department and an expert on North Korea, said assumptions by some in Washington and Tokyo that tougher sanctions will lead to the collapse of North Korea are mistaken.

“Whenever I speak to North Korean officials about the sanctions, their reaction is ‘Well, we’ve had sanctions of one sort or another since the end of the Korean War in 1953.’ There’s no doubt further sanctions would hurt, but the regime itself will continue to survive,” Komaki said.

The most dramatic testimony of the symposium came from four women, three of them Japanese citizens, who married Korean nationals and emigrated to North Korea in the 1960s. All recently escaped after suffering decades of hardship.

Pak Min Jong, a Korean resident of Japan, said that while most at the symposium agree that necessary humanitarian aid should continue to North Korea, despite lobbying for tougher international sanctions by Tokyo and Washington, the aid is not reaching those for whom it is intended.

“The international community sent lots of humanitarian aid to North Korea while I was there. But neither I nor my neighbors ever saw any of it, because it all ended up in the hands of the local military and government officials,” said Pak, who made it back to Japan about a year and a half ago.

Hiroko Saito, who went to North Korea in the 1960s and came back in 2001, said her first years there were not too bad, economically, but that things got much worse in the 1990s. She decided to flee with her son and managed to get to South Korea.

“As I’m Japanese, I was able to return home. But my son remains stuck in South Korea because he doesn’t have Japanese nationality and therefore cannot get a passport to come to Japan,” she said.

Fumiaki Yamada, director of Society to Help Returnees to North Korea, an NGO that helps returnees from North Korea, said the issue is another impediment to better relations between Japan and North Korea and should be addressed at the highest political levels.