SEOUL — On a vibrant August morning in 1960, after two days of crusing from Japan, lots of of passengers rushed on deck as somebody shouted, “I see the fatherland!”
The ship pulled into Chongjin, a port metropolis in North Korea, the place a crowd of individuals waved paper flowers and sang welcome songs. But Lee Tae-kyung felt one thing dreadfully amiss in the “paradise” he had been promised.
“The people gathered were expressionless,” Mr. Lee recalled. “I was only a child of 8, but I knew we were in the wrong place.”
Mr. Lee’s and his household had been amongst 93,000 individuals who migrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 below a repatriation program sponsored by each governments and their Red Cross societies. When they arrived, they noticed destitute villages and folks residing in poverty, however had been compelled to remain. Some ended up in jail camps.
“We were told we were going to a ‘paradise on earth,’” stated Mr. Lee, 68. “Instead, we were taken to a hell and denied a most basic human right: the freedom to leave.”
Mr. Lee finally fled North Korea after 46 years, reaching South Korea in 2009. He has since campaigned tirelessly to share the story of these 93,000 migrants, giving lectures, talking at news conferences and writing a memoir about a painful, largely forgotten chapter of historical past between Japan and Korea.
His work comes at a time of renewed curiosity in North Korean human rights violations, and when leaders in Japan and South Korea stay significantly delicate about opening previous wounds between the 2 international locations.
“It was my mother who urged my father to take our family to the North,” Mr. Lee stated. “And it was her endless source of regret until she died at age 74.”
The Lees had been amongst two million Koreans who moved to Japan throughout Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Some went there in search of work, others had been taken for compelled labor in Japan’s World War II effort. Lacking citizenship and monetary alternatives, most returned to Korea after the Japanese give up.
But lots of of hundreds, amongst them Mr. Lee’s household, remained because the Korean Peninsula was plunged into battle.
Mr. Lee was born in Japan in 1952. The household ran a charcoal-grill restaurant in Shimonoseki, the port closest to Korea — a reminder that they might return house.
As the Korean War got here to an finish, the Japanese authorities was desperate to do away with the throngs of Koreans residing in slums. For its half, hoping to make use of them to assist rebuild its war-torn financial system, North Korea launched a propaganda blitz, touting itself as a “paradise” with jobs for everybody, free schooling and medical providers.
Mr. Lee’s major faculty in Japan, he stated, screened propaganda newsreels from North Korea displaying bumper crops and staff constructing “a house every 10 minutes.” Marches had been organized calling for repatriation. A professional-North Korea group in Japan even inspired college students to be recruited as “birthday gifts” for Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder, based on a latest report from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
Japan accredited of the migration although most Koreans in the nation had been from the South, which was mired in political unrest. While Japanese authorities stated ethnic Koreans selected to relocate to North Korea, human rights teams have accused the nation of aiding and abetting the deception by ignoring the circumstances the migrants would face in the communist nation.
“By leaving for North Korea, ethnic Koreans were forced to sign an exit-only document that prohibited them from returning to Japan,” the Citizens’ Alliance report stated. The authors likened the migration to a “slave trade” and “forced displacement.”
Most of the migrants had been ethnic Koreans, however additionally they included 1,800 Japanese girls married to Korean males and hundreds of biracial youngsters. Among them was a younger girl named Ko Yong-hee, who would later turn into a dancer and give start to Kim Jong-un, the chief of North Korea, and grandson of its founder.
When Mr. Lee’s household boarded the ship in 1960, his dad and mom thought Korea would quickly be reunited. Mr. Lee’s mom gave him and his 4 siblings money and instructed them to get pleasure from their final days in Japan. Mr. Lee purchased a mini pinball-game machine. His youthful sister introduced house a child doll that closed its eyes when it lay on the mattress.
“It was the last freedom we would taste,” he stated.
He realized his household had been duped, he stated, when he noticed the folks at Chongjin, who “all looked poor and ashen.” In the agricultural North Korean county the place his household was ordered to resettle, they had been shocked to see folks go with out footwear or umbrellas in the rain.
In 1960 alone, 49,000 folks migrated from Japan to North Korea, however the quantity sharply declined as phrase unfold of the true situations in the nation. Despite the watchful eye of censors, households devised methods to warn their kinfolk. One man wrote a message on the again of a postage stamp:
“We are not able to leave the village,” he wrote in the tiny area, urging his brother in Japan to not come.
Mr. Lee’s aunt despatched her mom a letter telling her to contemplate immigrating to North Korea when her nephew was sufficiently old to marry. The message was clear: The nephew was solely 3.
To survive, the migrants usually relied on money and packages despatched by kinfolk nonetheless in Japan. In faculty, Mr. Lee stated, youngsters referred to as him “ban-jjokbari,” an insulting time period for Koreans from Japan. Everyone lived below fixed worry of being referred to as disloyal and banished to jail camps.
“For North Korea, they served as hostages held for ransom,” stated Kim So-hee, co-author of the report. “Families in Japan were asked to pay for the release of their relatives from prison camps.”
Mr. Lee grew to become a physician, probably the greatest jobs accessible to migrants from Japan who had been denied authorities jobs. He stated his medical expertise allowed him to witness the collapse of the general public well being system in the wake of the famine in the Nineteen Nineties, when medical doctors in North Korea had been compelled to make use of beer bottles to assemble IVs.
He fled to China in 2006 as a part of a stream of refugees, spending two and a half years in jail in Myanmar when he and his smuggler had been detained for human trafficking. After arriving in Seoul in 2009, Mr. Lee helped smuggle his spouse and daughter out of North Korea. But he nonetheless has kinfolk, together with a son, caught in the nation, he stated.
His spouse died in 2013, and now Mr. Lee lives alone in a small rented condo in Seoul. “But I have freedom,” he stated. “I would have sacrificed everything else for it.”
Mr. Lee has fashioned an affiliation with 50 ethnic Koreans from Japan who migrated to North Korea and escaped to the South. Every December, the group meets to mark the anniversary of the start of the mass migration in 1959. His memoir is sort of full. His technology is the final to have firsthand expertise of what occurred to these 93,000 migrants, he stated.
“It’s sad that our stories will be buried when we die,” Mr. Lee stated.