In August, five North Korean defectors residing in Japan filed a lawsuit in Tokyo District Court charging Pyongyang with human rights abuses. The plaintiffs were described in the Mainichi Shimbun as “second-generation ethnic Koreans” who grew up in Japan but moved to North Korea during the mobilization of Koreans between 1959 and 1984, which was supported by the governments of both North Korea and Japan. During this period, about 93,000 people were “repatriated” to a country very few really knew and none had ever lived in. They bought the propaganda sold by Pyongyang and its political arm in Japan, the General Association of Korean Residents of Japan, or Chongryon, which presented North Korea as “a paradise on Earth.” The plaintiffs described widespread starvation and brutal political persecution after they arrived. Eventually, they escaped to South Korea and made their way back to Japan.

Japanese media like nothing better than to demonize North Korea, and the lawsuit has been covered extensively. However, no media outlet has identified the plaintiffs’ support group, which is presumably paying their court fees. The repatriation project was spurred by Japanese nationalist elements that wanted to push all ethnic Koreans out of Japan after World War II. The support group also seems aligned to the right side of the political spectrum. Now they are using these defectors to advance their anti-North Korea agenda, and while that doesn’t necessarily make the lawsuit a cynical stunt — many Japanese, regardless of political leanings, don’t like North Korea — it’s important to consider what the true aim of the suit is, especially given that Japan and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations and, as a result, the defendants in the case have no way to respond, even if they wanted to.

While the lawsuit may not count as political theater, it’s theater nonetheless, and if it has any worth in that regard, it should be to draw attention to an event that has never been fully appreciated by the domestic media or public. The people who made the move are quite old, and time is running out for gaining any understanding of what happened to them, since no detailed records of the repatriation program were kept at the time. If the lawsuit adds to our knowledge, then it will have value, even if that isn’t its purpose.

Jiro Ishimaru, editor of the Asia Press news agency, has been reporting on North Korean matters for many years. Much of his work on the repatriation program is based on interviews with defectors, and he formed a special research group that will release its findings next year to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the program.

On July 9, the Mainichi Shimbun ran one of these reports, which describes interviews with ethnic Korean women living in Seoul who were repatriated and then escaped years later.

One 79-year-old woman grew up in Hiroshima and had been evacuated from the city before the atom bomb was dropped. Her father ran a lumber yard, which failed after the war so the family couldn’t afford to send her brother to high school. Local Chongryon representatives came to her house and told the family that if they moved to North Korea, he could attend school for free, so eight of her 10 siblings, as well as her parents, moved to North Korea in the early 1960s as part of the repatriation program. Two brothers stayed behind in Japan and regularly sent money, which they essentially lived off. As the woman described it, a class system developed among the returnee community depending on how much money they received from Japan. Life was difficult. Members of her family were imprisoned for arbitrary reasons. After her own sons were arrested in the 1980s and ’90s and one died in custody, her family was sent to the countryside, where people were starving. She decided to escape with other former Japan residents.

About 200 defectors have made it back to Japan, and many of the people interviewed by Ishimaru over the years have said that Chongryon’s most persuasive means of getting people to move to North Korea was to say they could escape discrimination in Japan. Almost every Japanese political party supported the repatriation program while it was being carried out, an indication of the general attitude toward ethnic Koreans.

In June, the weekly magazine Josei Jishin ran a profile of filmmaker Yang Yong-hi to publicize her new memoir, which covers her university days from 1997 to 2003. At the end of her last movie, the critically acclaimed “Kazoku no Kuni” (“Our Homeland”), which takes place in 1997, the main character is shown lugging a large suitcase through Ueno, about to embark on an unspecified journey.

Yang was born into an ethnic Korean family in Osaka in 1964. Her father was a Chongryon executive. When Yang was 6, he sent her two older brothers to North Korea as part of the repatriation program, which he was instrumental in promoting. Later, Yang visited her brothers in North Korea twice. One became mentally ill due to pressure to conform. She resented the regime for what they did to him. He died at the age of 56.

However, her life in Japan was also fraught with frustration. Home was a stifling Confucian patriarchy, and because of her background she always had trouble finding work. Eventually, she met and befriended the film critic and TV personality known simply as Osugi, who encouraged her to embrace her Korean heritage and follow her dream to New York, where she studied filmmaking at the New School. In the city’s multicultural environment she came to understand and appreciate her mixed birthright, while cultivating a healthy skepticism toward any nationalist sentiments, a dynamic she has explored in her movies.

The work of Yang and Ishimaru, not to mention that of photojournalist Takashi Ito, who has visited North Korea many times to interview Japanese wives, provide windows onto a world that most Japanese people know nothing about — not just the repatriation tragedy, but the wider story of Koreans in Japan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.