They Have been Promised a Socialist Paradise, and Ended Up in ‘Hell’


SEOUL — On a vivid August morning in 1960, soon after two days of sailing from Japan, hundreds of passengers rushed on deck as an individual shouted, “I see the fatherland!”

The ship pulled into Chongjin, a port city in North Korea, in which a crowd of men and women waved paper flowers and sang welcome songs. But Lee Tae-kyung felt a thing dreadfully amiss in the “paradise” he had been promised.

“The men and women gathered had been expressionless,” Mr. Lee recalled. “I was only a kid of eight, but I knew we had been in the incorrect spot.”

Mr. Lee’s and his household had been amongst 93,000 men and women who migrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 below a repatriation plan sponsored by each governments and their Red Cross societies. When they arrived, they noticed destitute villages and men and women residing in poverty, but had been forced to remain. Some ended up in prison camps.

“We had been advised we had been going to a ‘paradise on earth,’” mentioned Mr. Lee, 68. “Instead, we had been taken to a hell and denied a most essential human correct: the freedom to depart.”

Mr. Lee sooner or later fled North Korea soon after 46 many years, reaching South Korea in 2009. He has considering the fact that campaigned tirelessly to share the story of these 93,000 migrants, providing lectures, speaking at information conferences and creating a memoir about a agonizing, generally forgotten chapter of historical past amongst Japan and Korea.

His do the job comes at a time of renewed curiosity in North Korean human rights violations, and when leaders in Japan and South Korea continue to be specifically delicate about opening previous wounds amongst the two nations.

“It was my mom who urged my father to get our household to the North,” Mr. Lee mentioned. “And it was her limitless supply of regret until eventually she died at age 74.”

The Lees had been amongst two million Koreans who moved to Japan for the duration of Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Some went there seeking for do the job, other people had been taken for forced labor in Japan’s Planet War II work. Lacking citizenship and economic possibilities, most returned to Korea soon after the Japanese surrender.

But hundreds of 1000’s, amongst them Mr. Lee’s household, remained as the Korean Peninsula was plunged into war.

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 would return dwelling.

As the Korean War came to an finish, the Japanese government was keen to get rid of the throngs of Koreans residing in slums. For its component, hoping to use them to aid rebuild its war-torn economic system, North Korea launched a propaganda blitz, touting itself as a “paradise” with jobs for anyone, cost-free schooling and health care solutions.

Mr. Lee’s major college in Japan, he mentioned, screened propaganda newsreels from North Korea exhibiting bumper crops and staff creating “a property every single ten minutes​.” Marches had been organized calling for repatriation. A professional-North Korea group in Japan even encouraged college students to be recruited as “birthday gifts” for Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, in accordance to a latest report from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.

Japan authorized of the migration in spite of the truth that most Koreans in the nation had been from the South, which was mired in political unrest. Whilst Japanese authorities mentioned ethnic Koreans chose to relocate to North Korea, human rights groups have accused the nation of aiding and abetting the deception by ignoring the conditions the migrants would encounter in the communist nation.

“By leaving for North Korea, ethnic Koreans had been forced to signal an exit-only document that prohibited them from returning to Japan,” the Citizens’ Alliance report mentioned. The authors likened the migration to a “slave trade” and “forced displacement.”

Most of the migrants had been ethnic Koreans, but they also incorporated one,800 Japanese gals married to Korean males and 1000’s of biracial small children. Between them was a youthful lady named Ko Yong-hee, who would later on come to be a dancer and give birth to Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, and grandson of its founder.

When Mr. Lee’s household boarded the ship in 1960, his moms and dads believed Korea would quickly be reunited. Mr. Lee’s mom gave him and his 4 siblings money and advised them to take pleasure in their final days in Japan. Mr. Lee purchased a mini pinball-game machine. His younger sister brought dwelling a little one doll that closed its eyes when it lay on the bed.

“It was the final freedom we would taste,” he mentioned.

He recognized his household had been duped, he mentioned, when he noticed the men and women at Chongjin, who “all looked bad and ashen.” In the rural North Korean county in which his household was ordered to resettle, they had been shocked to see men and women go without the need of footwear or umbrellas in the rain.

In 1960 alone, 49,000 men and women migrated from Japan to North Korea, but the quantity sharply declined as word spread of the genuine problems in the nation. In spite of the watchful eye of censors, households devised means to warn their family members. A single guy wrote a message on the back of a postage stamp:

“We are not ready to depart the village,” he wrote in the small area, urging his brother in Japan not to come.

Mr. Lee’s aunt ​sent her mother​ a letter​ telling her to think about immigrating to North Korea when her nephew was previous sufficient to marry. The message was clear: The nephew was only three.

To survive, the migrants generally relied on money and packages sent by family members nevertheless in Japan. In college, Mr. Lee mentioned, small children termed him “ban-jjokbari,” an insulting phrase for Koreans from Japan. Absolutely everyone lived below consistent dread of remaining termed disloyal and banished to prison camps.

“For North Korea, they served as hostages held for ransom,” mentioned Kim So-hee, co-writer of the report. “Families in Japan had been asked to shell out for the release of their family members from prison camps.”

Mr. Lee grew to become a health care provider, one particular of the finest jobs out there to migrants​ from Japan​ who had been denied government jobs. He mentioned his health care expertise permitted him to witness the collapse of the public well being program in the wake of the famine in the 1990s, when health professionals in North Korea had been forced to use beer bottles to construct IVs.

He fled to China in 2006 as component of a stream of refugees, paying two and a half many years in prison in Myanmar when he and his smuggler had been detained for human trafficking. Immediately after arriving in Seoul in 2009, Mr. Lee aided smuggle his wife and daughter out of North Korea. But he nevertheless has ​relatives, which includes a son, caught in the nation, he mentioned.

His wife died in 2013, and now Mr. Lee lives alone in a little rented apartment in Seoul. “But I have freedom,” he mentioned. “I would have sacrificed almost everything else for it.”

Mr. Lee has formed an association with 50 ethnic Koreans from Japan who migrated to North Korea and escaped to the South. Every single December, the group meets to mark the anniversary of the starting of the mass migration in 1959. His memoir is just about comprehensive. His generation is the final to have firsthand expertise of what took place to these 93,000 migrants, he mentioned.

“It’s unhappy that our stories will be buried when we die,” Mr. Lee mentioned.

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