A Glimpse of North Korean Victims of Japanese Forced Labor

August 22nd, 2012

The Commission on Verification and Support for the Victims of Forced Mobilization under Japanese Colonialism, an affiliate of the South Korean Prime Minister’s Office, held a press conference for domestic and foreign journalists on August 20th, at its headquarters in downtown Seoul. Highlights of the conference included a report by the chairman of the commission, Park In-hwan, on the current plight of those North and South Korean people who were forced by Japanese colonizers to work as soldiers, civil military employees and laborers during World War II.

During the briefing, reporters were also shown the commission’s exhibition hall, which houses artifacts submitted by Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor in order to get compensation from the South Korean government. The fascinating items on display include a flag of imperial Japan, old photos, a fan and jacket used in colonial times, and more. They were also taken down for an exclusive look at the archive room in the basement of the commission’s headquarters, which houses thousands of records consisting of applications to get compensation from forced labor victims and their family members, as well as the commission’s written decisions on whether the applicants should or should not be compensated.

Lee Jae-chul, a staff member at the commission, said “Japan has never believed that there was any forced mobilization of Korean victims on their part. So we have opened our headquarters to journalists for the first time today to try to convince Japan to compensate them by showing the reporters all the evidence here.”

Seoul has refrained from asking Tokyo for compensation for the wartime laborers due to Japan’s view that it already compensated the victims in 1965 through the Korea-Japan Claims Settlement Agreement in which South Korea got 800 million dollars from Japan. However, there have been complaints from victims that Japan did not do enough to make up for forcing them to move and work. Moreover, the South Korean government is being increasingly criticized for forsaking its duty to get Japan to redress past wrongs when it comes to the forced labor issue.

Relics on display at the conference (2) – photo: Jennifer Chang

Park, who heads the commission, said that “before the Korean War ended and the Korean Peninsula was divided into North and South Korea, nearly 6.5 million Koreans from both the northern and southern parts of the peninsula, or present-day North and South Korea, were forced by Japanese authorities to work for Japanese bosses in various regions of Korea, including remote areas like North Hamgyeong Province and Jeju Island.” He added that “because Korea was Japan’s only colony, there were also almost 788,000 Koreans who were made to help Japan maintain its occupation of numerous Asia-Pacific nations during World War II, when Japanese military influence abroad was at its height.”

He also said, “After the Korean War armistice was signed, some Koreans who had been sent to work in the North were unable to make it back to the South and became North Korean citizens. So it’s clear that there are victims of Japanese forced mobilization in the North now, and North Korea even has a commission like South Korea’s that is trying to help them. However, North Korea does not have diplomatic ties with Japan, so it has not gotten any compensation for the North Korean victims from the Japanese. South Korea, on the other hand, has.”

Furthermore, Park stated that one of the main projects his “commission is engaged in is an investigation of a cemetery in the southern Sakhalin region of Russia.” During World War II, that area was changed into Karafuto Prefecture, a Japanese administrative division corresponding to Japanese territory. “Many Koreans had to leave Korea and go to Sakhalin as they were forcefully mobilized for labor by Japan, but many of them could not return to Korea. Instead, they died there because of the detention policy of the ex-Soviet Union after the war,” according to Park.

He added, “We are investigating the situation in the Sakhalin Cemetery, where lie the remains of a considerable number of Koreans. Considering that Sakhalin is closer to present-day North Korea than it is to South Korea, we also believe that the majority of forced Korean laborers there were from the North.”

Chung Hye-kyung, chief of the department in the Prime Minister’s Office that investigates the forced labor by collaborating with Japanese institutes, said “South Korea got a list of the victims from Japan because the two neighbors have normalized relations. The list is very incomplete. But North Korea didn’t even get a list of mobilized laborers from Japan even though the North Korean government set up a verification commission like South Korea’s before the South did. The reason is that Tokyo and Pyongyang do not have formal diplomatic relations yet.”

According to Park, little is known about the number of North Korean victims of forced labor who are currently left in North Korea, or what the North Korean government is doing to help them. However, his commission managed to shed some light today on an aspect of North Korea that has hitherto remained dark and obscure to many.

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About the Author

Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang is a freelance broadcast and print journalist. She is now a Seoul-based correspondent with Global Radio News in London, and makes appearances as a reporter on English-language TV networks around the world. She also contributes articles to various publications such as the Christian Science Monitor's Global News Blog and Asia-Pacific Business and Technology Report, a magazine with subscribers in over 30 Asia-Pacific nations. Prior to working for GRN, she covered North and South Korea for the U.S. network, CBS Radio News.