The plight of “returnees” to North Korea from Japan is increasingly forgotten nearly 60 years after Tokyo and Pyongyang jointly launched a resettlement project for ethnic Koreans living in Japan.
Attracted by Pyongyang propaganda promising a “paradise on Earth,” some 93,000 people, including 6,700 Japanese spouses and children, moved to North Korea under the project that lasted 25 years. The first ship left Japan on Dec. 14, 1959.
Many participants experienced hardships in North Korea. A handful managed to escape the country. Many others died there.
“Everything I saw and did depressed me,” Manabu Ishikawa, 61, told a symposium in Tokyo on Nov. 17. “I was full of regret and various other emotions.”
The Tokyo native moved to North Korea in 1972 at age 14 with his then 21-year-old sister. He defected from North Korea in 2001 and returned to Japan the following year.
He was shocked when he started living in North Korea.
“The standard of living, levels of knowledge and many other things were totally different” from those in Japan, he said.
Ishikawa soon realized that he would not survive without being trusted by locals. He married a local woman and worked at an architect office.
Meanwhile, his sister began to suffer mental illness around 1974 and was repeatedly hospitalized. She died in 1991.
In Japan, she was unable to advance to college. She took part in the resettlement project after seeing an advertisement that said, “Anybody, regardless of age and sex, can study in the homeland.”
But her dream was shattered when North Korean authorities told her there was no way women her age could go to college, Ishikawa said.
“We eked out a living by selling a refrigerator, a television and a mattress,” he said of the North Korean famine known as the Arduous March in the late 1990s. He said he had bought those items before allowances sent from relatives in Japan ended during that decade.
He survived the famine, but many other people did not.
Some of the returnees lived in affluence thanks to allowances from Japan, while others faced discrimination and became the target of jealousy from locals.
A 72-year-old woman who moved to North Korea in 1960 with her mother and siblings married a fellow returnee. She said she did not socialize much with locals.
Some returnees she knew were sent to political prison camps. She had the impression that locals would tip off authorities if the so-called returnees became critical of the regime.
The woman, a native of the city of Fukuoka, often sang Japanese songs with her peers, trying to forget her harsh reality.
Unlike South Korea, Japan has no public system to support defectors from North Korea.
“I was born and raised in Japan, and my mother is Japanese,” Ishikawa said. “Going to South Korea was not among my options.”
Meanwhile, the 72-year-old woman was granted asylum in the South in 2000 and lives there now on public assistance.
“I wanted to return to my homeland, Japan, but there was no way to do that,” she said. “I’m not unhappy with my free life in South Korea, but I have no friends.”
Of the returnees, about 200 defected from the North and resettled in Japan, while 300 to 400 are believed to have fled to the South.
Japan and North Korea started a program in 1997 to allow Japanese wives of Koreans who moved to the North to visit Japan. But no such visit has been organized since 2000.
In October 2017, volunteers including Japanese scholars and journalists established a group to record the memories of those who resettled in the North. The group interviews returnees who fled the North, aiming to publish a collection of their testimonies by the end of 2021.
Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula ended in 1945 when Japan was defeated in World War II. Koreans were granted special permanent residency status in Japan, but many lived in poverty and faced discrimination.
Under the repatriation project, supported by the International Committee of the Red Cross and terminated in 1984, 93,340 people moved to North Korea.
Political and media organizations also backed the project, calling it a humanitarian measure.