Photo/IllutrationThe first ship carrying ethnic Koreans heading for North Korea leaves Niigata Port on Dec. 14, 1959. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The promised "paradise of Earth" was anything but, as ethnic Koreans from Japan discovered after they took the first ship departing from Niigata Port for North Korea on Dec. 14, 1959.

"Life there was hell," said Eiko Kawasaki, 77. "We were so poor and did not have enough to eat."

Under a repatriation program for ethnic Koreans living in Japan, a total of 93,340 people would return to North Korea by 1984.

The project was promoted by not only the two governments, but also the Red Cross societies of the two nations as well as the mass media.

At that time, ethnic Koreans in Japan faced poverty and discrimination as they could not join national health insurance or pension programs. Many were convinced a better life awaited them in North Korea.

Of those that took the plunge, about 6,800 held Japanese citizenship as many were spouses of an ethnic Korean husband.

It wasn't long before many new arrivals realized they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. The grueling lifestyle and constant government surveillance led many to defect.

Eventually, 200 or so returned to Japan, including Kawasaki. Another 300 now reside in South Korea.

Kawasaki recalled her feelings of isolation as she had no one nearby in whom she could confide her true feelings.

Kawasaki was born in 1942 in Kyoto Prefecture of parents who hailed from the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.

In 1960, during her final year of senior high school, Kawasaki decided she wanted to better understand the ideology that North Korea preached, and was the sole member of her family to go to North Korea.

As the ship transporting her and others anchored at Chongjin Port in eastern North Korea, someone on land shouted, "Don't get off! Return to Japan on that ship."

The warning was from someone who had already left Japan for North Korea.

A theme in many stories told by defectors is that those who returned from Japan were viewed as second-class citizens in North Korea.

Those suspected of being disloyal to the state were quickly ensconced in concentration camps.

Kawasaki graduated from university and worked at a machinery plant. She married a local man and bore five children.

She said her family existed on a miserable diet as fish and meat were unavailable and white rice only made up about 10 percent of the rations they received twice a month. The bulk of the rations consisted of other grains.

Kawasaki said one of the few pleasures she had in North Korea was gatherings with a few close friends at home and singing Japanese songs. But those festivities had to be done in secret with the curtains shut and the windows closed so as to avoid detection from the authorities.

Kawasaki said her favorite song was one sung by Hibari Misora, the diva legend of the Showa Era (1926-1989).

"We sang while shedding tears because we were reminded of Japan," she said.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, Kawasaki decided she could not put up with the situation any longer. At the time, North Korea was ravaged by famine.

In 2003, she crossed one of the two rivers that serve as natural borders with China. The following year, her younger brother still living in Japan agreed to be her guarantor and she stepped on Japanese soil for the first time in 44 years. Her daughter and two grandchildren also defected.

Since 2012, Kawasaki has spoken about her hardships and allowed her identity and photos to be used because she felt people needed to know the truth about North Korea.

In 2018, she and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in the Tokyo District Court demanding the North Korean government pay 500 million yen ($4.6 million) in compensation for forcing them to exist under such hardships.

Kawasaki clings to the hope that interest will develop in this issue because those still in North Korea and their families cannot freely visit Japan.

Fumiaki Yamada, 71, a former associate professor at Osaka University of Economics who serves as honorary head of the Society to Help Returnees to North Korea, said defections of returnees began from around 2000.

He noted that many defectors tried to pass themselves off as South Koreans because they would be viewed warily if they said they were from North Korea.

While many defectors are content with their lives in Japan, Yamada added that many still suffer from all sorts of trauma. For example, he said some were enlisted to help dispose of the countless dead from the famine.

Their grief does not end there. The children and grandchildren of returnees who have also defected face a hard time acclimating into Japanese society because they possess poor language skills.

(This article was written by Sokichi Kuroda and Takashi Okuma.)