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A Korean family in Japan has been exchanging letters with its only son for 50 years, ever since he moved to North Korea under a government-sponsored migration project.

The family recently marked the 50th anniversary of his move to North Korea on Aug. 5, 1960. One member, a 55-year-old woman who has asked to be identified by the pseudonym Kang Il Mae, said her only wish is that her brother will come back to Japan.

Kang, who lives in Tokyo, was 5 on that August day when she and her mother saw him off at Niigata port, as he boarded a ship to North Korea. He was one of about 93,000 ethnic Koreans who moved to the country from Japan between 1959 and 1984 through the so-called repatriation project.

While the project was supposedly designed to help ethnic Koreans “return” to their homeland, some say it was a convenient agreement that enabled Japan to reduce the number of ethnic Koreans living in the country while allowing North Korea to obtain laborers to build the then new country.

It also became apparent over the years that North Korea was not the “paradise on Earth” it was advertised to be, where one had the security of employment and housing.

Kang’s mother, who was from Jeju Island in what is now South Korea, came to Japan about 80 years ago and gave birth to Kang in Yokohama. A fatherless family of three, Kang’s brother, who was 11 years older, always looked after her, she said, adding that she cried after he left for the North alone.

Discrimination against ethnic Koreans was severe at the time. The single-parent family had no means to send its son to high school, even though he was a bright student. With North Korea promising free education through college, the project must have appealed to him, Kang said.

Their mother worked at bars late into the night to scrape up whatever she had. She once spent ¥100,000 to ¥200,000 to send a crate packed with clothing and watches that could be converted into cash, Kang said.

After graduation, the brother found a job at an architectural firm, got married and had three children, Kang said.

She took over their mother’s role of writing letters and sending packages to the brother about 15 years ago. His letters are a reminder of how tough life is, she said.

He wrote that the locals didn’t have good feelings toward “returnees” like him, and also there were no teachers he could trust. He studied while working on a farm and did not have enough food. Working continuously, he became sick many times, according to Kang.

Kang said she also felt sad for her mother, who could support her son only from afar. Kang put together a book in 2006 out of the letters he sent, as proof that he is alive.

Kang’s mother kept saying she felt sorry for her son, who was living in a “prisonlike country.” She died in February last year at age 82. Kang’s brother wrote, “My heart aches now that I can only see her in photographs.”

The family has received nearly 170 letters so far. “I think that my brother draws strength from letters from Japan,” Kang said.

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