Promise of ‘paradise’ drew residents of Japan to emigrate to North Korea over 4 decades ago

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan-born Eiko Kawasaki talks about her difficult life in North Korea on Oct. 2 in Tokyo.

While it might be hard to believe today, from 1959 to 1984, 93,000 people emigrated from Japan to North Korea, which was being promoted as an “earthly paradise.”

Some Korean residents in Japan and their families, including Japanese spouses, took advantage of a program that ran over a 25-year period, which came about through an accord between the Red Cross Societies of Japan and North Korea.

The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), an organization that supports North Korea, was the main promoter of the program, advertising that “all conditions necessary for a livelihood are guaranteed.”

Now, five of the people who emigrated but later fled the North to return to Japan are awaiting a ruling on their lawsuit filed in Tokyo District Court in August 2018 seeking damages from Pyongyang.

In demanding ¥500 million in total compensation from the North Korean government, the plaintiffs claim that in the North they were forced to lead miserable lives for decades.

The ruling to be handed down on March 23, 2022, will focus on whether the court has the jurisdiction to try the North Korean government.

Sovereign immunity is a principle of international law and Japan’s law also stipulates that foreign countries and their governmental entities are in principle exempt from Japan’s jurisdiction.

Despite the high legal hurdles, the plaintiffs’ lawyers insist that because Japan does not recognize North Korea as a state, then it cannot be regarded as a foreign country that would be exempt.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A North Korean ship carrying people from Japan emigrating to the North departs Niigata in December 1959.

Seeking better life

“I was confined for decades without any means to return to Japan,” said one of the plaintiffs during the initial oral arguments in the Tokyo District Court on Oct. 14.

Another plaintiff said: “I heard that my grandchild was killed after I escaped from North Korea. I can’t sleep well worrying about the family members I left behind.”

According to the claims of the five plaintiffs, they emigrated to North Korea in the 1960s and 1970s under the program. They said they suffered from hunger and discrimination, among other injuries, and had their human rights oppressed. In the early 2000s, the five escaped from North Korea.

The plaintiffs insist that the program was a way for North Korea to abduct them and constituted unlawful acts.

Speaking to reporters later, plaintiff Eiko Kawasaki, 79, said, “I want North Korea to take responsibility for depriving us of more than half our lives through lies and oppression.”

Kawasaki was born in Kyoto Prefecture as the eldest daughter of five siblings in a Korean family.

She said she was enrolled in a school for ethnic Koreans when a teacher told her, “In North Korea, education and medical care are free, and people can freely choose their schools and occupations.”

As her family was poor, Kawasaki decided to apply for the program.

She was in her final year of high school when she boarded a ship bound for North Korea.

When she arrived, the “paradise” she saw was only soot-blackened buildings, unpaved roads, gaunt residents and emaciated livestock.

The arriving people who voiced their desire to return to Japan were detained by authorities, she said.

Kawasaki moved into a dormitory after enrolling in a high school. She said the meals provided were miserable, such as soup with salted potatoes or a few pieces of leafy vegetables, and her friends started falling ill from malnutrition or digestive troubles. No one was permitted to go back to Japan.

As the letters she sent to her family were censored, she would write in a way only her parents would understand. Remembering that her parents intended to go to North Korea a year later, Kawasaki wrote, “Come here only after my younger brother is married.”

While she was able to persuade her parents not to move to North Korea, she wept nightly from loneliness.

44 years away

Even after graduating from a university and taking a job designing machines, the Japan-born Kawasaki was kept in low-ranked positions as a “returnee from Japan.”

She married and had a son and four daughters. Her entire family faced discrimination.

During famines in the 1990s, there were families of people who had arrived on the program in which all members starved to death. Some were murdered by robbers.

Kawasaki managed to earn a living by doing black market jobs while she felt the fear of being persecuted by authorities.

“It wouldn’t have been odd if I had suffered from mental problems,” Kawasaki said.

In the 2000s, when her children had become independent, Kawasaki risked her life to escape from North Korea. Guided by a broker, she crossed a river on the border with China. She secretly lived in that country for a time before stepping foot in Japan for the first time in 44 years.

Four days after her arrival back home, her father passed away.

“Although we weren’t able to have a conversation, I was glad that at the very least I could have a final moment with him,” Kawasaki said.

As her children and grandchildren remain in North Korea, Kawasaki has sent them parcels with daily necessities. However, she has been unable to confirm whether her family members in the country are alive or safe.

“If the court recognizes North Korea’s responsibility, international public opinion may put pressure on the administration and the regime may change,” Kawasaki said. “I hope it will become a foundation for a future in which my children and grandchildren will be able to freely travel between Japan and North Korea.