Eiko Kawasaki, a Japanese citizen who was repatriated to North Korea in 1960, holds up her memoir, published in Japan, at a hotel in midtown Manhattan on March 6. Photo by Elizabeth Shim/UPI
NEW YORK, March 19 (UPI) -- A Japanese citizen who defected from North Korea wants to hold the North Korean government responsible for their involvement in the repatriation of more than 90,000 people from 1959 to 1984.
Eiko Kawasaki, representative director of the Japan branch of Action for Korea United, a non-governmental organization, says the plan to ship out tens of thousands of people from Japan, most of them ethnic Koreans, resulted in a tragedy that upended lives, including her own.
Kawasaki, a Japan-born ethnic Korean and a native of Kyoto, was 17 years old when she made the journey alone to North Korea in 1960, leaving her family behind. Her parents had opposed the idea and pleaded with her not to go.
"I was a bit stubborn then," Kawasaki told UPI.
The decision was not an easy one. Japan was the only homeland she knew. Her family, originally from southern Korea, did not return to the peninsula after World War II.
Japan was a challenging environment for ethnic Koreans, however. Kawasaki's family was strapped for cash. She desperately wanted to go to college, but discriminatory policies in Japan targeting ethnic Koreans disqualified people like her from attending Japanese schools on state scholarships.
Markus Bell, a North Korea expert and migration researcher based in Yangon, Myanmar, said the repatriation program for "Zainichi" Koreans like Kawasaki was a meeting of minds. North Korea founder Kim Il Sung needed manpower, and the postwar Japanese government wanted to get rid of its ethnic Korean population after decades of colonization.
"It was a rare moment in time when the intentions of normally antagonistic actors aligned for what was the biggest movement of people from the capitalist to the communist worlds," Bell said.
"The Japanese government didn't just consent to the program. My research shows that the Japanese were the first to initiate the idea."
Kawasaki decided to migrate to North Korea solo, but her choice may have also been driven by the influential General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, the pro-Pyongyang organization also known as Chongryon in Korean and Chosen Soren in Japanese.
Chongryon went as far as visiting Kawasaki at her house, with her parents present.
"Day after day, they would go from house to house," she said. "They would tell us, 'North Korea is such a great place, why do you need to live in Japan?'"
North Korea's mouthpiece
Chongryon's promotion of North Korea in Japan came at an uncertain time for Zainichi Koreans. The Koreas were divided following the 1950-53 Korean War. Soon after, ethnic Koreans in Japan felt compelled to choose a side. Nearly 70 percent "supported" North Korea and only 20 percent sided with the South, Kawasaki said.
Chongryon may have played a key role in influencing opinion. The group told Kawasaki if she moved to North Korea, a "socialist society," she would learn about North Korea's unique brand of communism and help the fatherland in the event of unification. The plan was to support Kim Il Sung take over the entire peninsula in the event of the death of Syngman Rhee, South Korea's autocratic president.
That day never came. In 1960, the same year Kawasaki was sent to Japan by ship, Rhee was ousted from office in the South, but soon after a coup in South Korea brought a new military regime to power.
Chongryon is included in Kawasaki's planned lawsuit against the North Korean government. Kawasaki says she has previously filed a petition to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations against the Japanese government, but not a lawsuit.
Frequently described as Pyongyang's de facto embassy in Japan, Chongryon could be wearing many hats, Bell says.
"Chongryon represented North Korea, not Zainichi Koreans, although it did provide a conduit for [North Korean] financial support, in the form of [Chongryon-run] schools, banking systems and other modes of livelihoods," the analyst said.
"The reality, however, is that it acted as a tax collector for Zainichi supporters of [North Korea] in Japan, gathering and sending billions of Japanese yen to the [North Korean] government over the decades."
Kawasaki fled North Korea in 2003, after decades of discrimination. As an ethnic Korean returnee from Japan, Kawasaki said she was a member of the "second-lowest" class in the regime, only slightly above criminals.
Many of the repatriated Koreans began to petition the Japanese government for help, but their calls went unanswered. Kawasaki said the repatriated Koreans frequently fell ill from a bad diet, and were sometimes even institutionalized after mental breakdowns or died by suicide.
Before quietly leaving the regime without telling her family for their own protection, Kawasaki said she bore witness to the decline of the North Korean leadership. During the Great Famine of the late '90s, she saw people collapsing from weakness and heard children scream from hunger pains.
"Kim Jong Il ended food rations," she said. "He abandoned his own people."
Action for Korea United and the Global Peace Foundation are affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly stated Kawasaki was filing a suit against the government of Japan.