The last ten years have seen unprecedented pressure put on North Korea for alleged human rights abuses, from the international community, civic groups, and from individual North Koreans to have escaped the DPRK.
But condemnation of one of the world’s most closed countries, and the international mobilization of activist groups demanding justice for ordinary North Koreans, has precedent in the early years of the DPRK’s existence.
In this two-part special, Dr. Markus Bell (La Trobe University) discusses a little-known episode in the 1960s-1970s, during which thousands of Koreans and Japanese migrated from Japan to the DPRK as part of the largest mass migration from the capitalist world to the communist one.
Once in North Korea, Japanese spouses of Korean men were unable to return to their home country. Their experiences were instead communicated in letters that made it past state censors. Once with family in Japan, these letters were used as evidence of tragedies unfolding behind the bamboo curtain.
Parts of this special feature are drawn from a chapter in the edited volume Popular Culture and the Transformation of Japan–Korea Relations, published with Routledge (2020).
It was said to be the land of opportunity. A place where the warm bosom of the nation would rise up to greet returning kin displaced by imperialism, war, and poverty.
Posters pinned to walls throughout Korean ghettos in Tokyo, Kobe, and Osaka called for comrades to come home to the embrace of Kim Il Sung. Cars with loudspeakers strapped to the roof crawled up and down the streets of Tsuruhashi, home to thousands of ethnic Koreans at the time, projecting greetings from the Fatherland.
“Free healthcare. Guaranteed employment. Education for all and a hand in building an independent DPRK free from foreign interference.” For some 650,000 Zainichi Koreans who remained in Japan after the war, enticements echoing through the narrow streets of Koreatown were difficult to ignore.
But among the chorus of propaganda, prospective repatriates and their families struggled to locate the truth.
The Early Years
The repatriation project, as it became known, was not a return home at all. Some 97% of the Koreans who boarded passenger liners for North Korea were from territory that, in 1948, became South Korea (the Republic of Korea). Joining tens of thousands of so-called repatriates were several thousand Japanese traveling to the DPRK for the first time.
Many Koreans in Japan — Zainichi Koreans as they are known — regarded the North’s Soviet-supported government as more politically legitimate than Syngman Rhee’s U.S.-backed Republic of Korea. Theirs was to be a migration motivated by an ideological sympathy with the fledgling DPRK and its revolutionary hero, Kim Il Sung.
In spite of the enthusiasm, the repatriations looked like they might never happen.
Negotiations between the governments of South Korea, North Korea, and Japan seemed bogged down. Rhee’s concern of how it would look to the world if tens of thousands of individuals chose the Communist North over the ROK threatened to undo the project before it even started.
The South Korean leader was further concerned that an influx of semi-skilled workers would contribute to an already strengthening DPRK economy.
In June 1956, Rhee lodged the first in a number of protests with the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The message was clear: if Japan pushed forward with the repatriation, the ROK would consider it a declaration of war. Rhee threatened to sink any ships sailing from Japan to the DPRK.
But Japan and North Korea went ahead. Both governments promoted the repatriations as a humanitarian project — a noble goal of returning displaced people to their homeland. In reality, both the Kishi administration and Kim Il Sung stood to gain.
The repatriation project, as it became known, was not a return home at all
Kim understood that welcoming tens of thousands of disaffected kinsmen from Japan could upset nascent Japanese diplomatic relations with South Korea. “Korean nationals in Japan… have the full right to return to their homeland which is prospering and developing with every passing day,” he said in September 1958.
His declaration was a signal to Chongryun, North Korea’s unofficial representation in Japan, to step up its recruitment campaign.
Tokyo, for its part, was keen to shed its remaining ethnic Korean population, vestiges of its colonial labor force. Promises of opening North Korean markets and tackling what was imagined as the over-population of Japan was worth upsetting Seoul over. The prospect of large numbers of leftist Koreans leaving the country attracted bipartisan support in the Japanese Diet.
Overseeing the project, the International Red Cross requested the USSR provide transport vessels, calculating that South Korea would not attack Soviet ships. Speculating that the Soviet Union would also benefit from worsening Japan-ROK relations, USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev provided two transport vessels, the Kyl’ion and Tobol’sk, and a naval escort.
Tens of thousands of prospective repatriates traveled from around Japan to the Red Cross Centre in the port city of Niigata. Permitted no more than 60 kilograms per person, they carried warm clothes and pictures of loved ones and other essentials: noodles, rice, seaweed, dried squid, and soap — items from home and last-minute purchases from the Red Cross store.
When the first ship eventually departed, on a freezing December day in 1959, it marked the beginning one of the largest mass migrations from the capitalist world to the communist one during the Cold War years.
From December 14, 1959 until the early days of 1984, some 87,000 Koreans and 6,750 Japanese nationals – wives and children of ethnic Koreans – boarded passenger liners to fluttering DPRK flags and performances organized by Chongryun. With Niigata receding into the distance, they sailed to Chongjin, North Korea, and the beginning of a new life.
Cracks in the facade
They came from all walks of life: Korean and Japanese; men, women, and children; the young and the old; factory workers, farmers, fishermen, rag pickers, homebrewers, and entrepreneurs; the wealthy and the unemployed. “Manse!” the new arrivals cried out, feeling the soil of the Fatherland beneath their feet for the first time.
But from the beginning, things were not quite right.
DPRK flags aflutter and praises to Kim Il Sung on the lips of officials, repatriates’ arrivals had an eerie symmetry to their departures. But the greeting party looked disheveled, with dirty clothes and a thin, hollow appearance. Cadres that ushered new arrivals into the arrivals hall did so with terse shouts.
One interviewee recalled that while they ate their allocation of rice, state officials presented historical and ideological lessons. Resting on the floor and against the walls of the processing center, cadres sorted them into categories according to place of origin in Japan, occupation, age, special skills, family composition, and ideological background.
Families with political connections through Chongryun or money to bribe officials might find themselves sent to the capital, Pyongyang. The majority of new arrivals, however, were bound for cities, towns, and villages throughout the country.
Welcome to paradise
The repatriates’ journies to their new homes took anywhere from a couple of days to a week, depending on the distance, their success in making each connection, and the health of the train in which they traveled. Along the way they battled the cold and fleas, sleeping on the train and in station layovers.
The government sent families where it needed labor. Some were allocated work in mines, factories, or collective farms; others became optometrists, teachers, or medical practitioners.
For a few, Kim Il Sung’s promises appeared to bear fruit. Several of my interlocutors had family who joined the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP). Others became elite athletes, representing North Korea in sports like ice hockey and softball.
But these were a select group and, according to an interviewee with family in the KWP, fewer than 1,000 repatriates entered such privileged circles.
The greeting party looked disheveled, with dirty clothes and a thin, hollow appearance
Rich or poor, politically connected or not, the items that repatriates brought with them were eaten, sold or traded, worn out and discarded not long after their arrivals. Missing the tastes of home, or needing items unavailable in North Korea, repatriates reached out to loved ones left behind.
It was well known that government censors read the letters of repatriates prior to shipping them to Japan. With this in mind, repatriates wrote in code that only their family would understand.
In the same breath that they praised their new home, they surreptitiously spoke of unfinished apartments, an absence of running water, and a dearth of edible food.
They asked for money and luxury goods to sell, such as hats and watches. They used evocative language that praised their revolutionary homeland while carefully telling the recipient not to follow them.
“Hatsumi and I are unwell right now,” writes the author of one such letter. “I am confined in bed because I worked too hard to secure our winter food — radish leaves. Hatsumi has difficulty in writing letters because of her frequent dizziness.”
Those who had studied in ethnic Korean schools in Japan wrote in Korean. Others wrote in Japanese characters; pages of Kanji and katakana interspersed with Hangul.
Unbeknownst to the Japanese women who wrote to mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, their letters were being collected in Japan and would soon become the kindling for a global activist movement demanding the return of Japanese wives in North Korea.
Edited by James Fretwell
The last ten years have seen unprecedented pressure put on North Korea for alleged human rights abuses, from the international community, civic groups, and from individual North Koreans to have escaped the DPRK.But condemnation of one of the world’s most closed countries, and the international mobilization of activist groups demanding justice for ordinary North Koreans, has precedent in the
Dr. Markus Bell is a migration and social inclusion expert who has published broadly on politics and social change in East Asia. He has lectured at the Australian National University, Goethe University Frankfurt and the University of Sheffield and is a Research Fellow at La Trobe University.