Image: The American Committee for Human Rights of Japanese Wives of North Korean Repatriates. Photo provided by the author
This article is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here.
The thick lenses in her large-framed glasses magnify Ikeda Fumiko’s eyes. With her hair pulled back in a bun, she looks determined as she addresses some 700 protestors on a chilly New York day in 1974.
Despite a long afternoon of speeches and the fatigue of a week-long fast, her audience appears attentive as Ikeda cries out for action from the UN to free Japanese wives from North Korea.
The repatriation of tens of thousands of Koreans and some 6,750 Japanese to North Korea initially looked to be a success. In 1960 alone, over 49,000 people left for the DPRK.
North Korean and Japanese newspapers printed glowing interviews with repatriated Koreans now living in the DPRK. Pyongyang boasted that repatriates were working “Jobs suitable for their wish and qualifications” and “living in modern housing.”
Tokyo-based, pro-DPRK newspaper The Chōsen Nippon reported that returnees were working in construction, heavy and light industries, agriculture, science, and education. Young repatriates, the 1964 article gushed, were reaping the benefits of free education.
But from early on, Chongryun officials struggled to recruit enough people to leave for North Korea, and by May 1961 the ferry crossing the Sea of Japan was intermittently suspended. As of late 1962, departures had gone from 3-4 times a month to once a month, and the average number of passengers to North Korea had fallen from around 1,000 to 400 people each trip.
Unofficial reports out of North Korea contradicted Pyongyang’s positive review. Even with state censors working overtime, the reality of life in North Korea made it back to anxious families in Japan.
SWEATERS, SOCKS, AND UNDERSHIRTS FOR WINTER
Repatriates wrote letters detailing dire living conditions, inedible food rations, and tensions with native North Koreans. They wrote requesting hard currency, items for cooking, and goods to trade on the black markets.
In one such letter, written February 6, 1970, 43-year-old Sumi laments that her family is living an ‘onion existence,’ forced to sell their belongings one item after another to survive.
“If you would send us 300 neckerchiefs which are 100 percent nylon, I can eke out our livelihood,” she pleads to her sister. “As it was summer when we left Japan, we didn’t bring clothes for winter […] If you can send sweaters, socks and under-shirts for winter, we [would be] very happy.”
Sumi’s requested neckerchiefs were useful as bribes for local cadres. Luxury items made in Japan were held in high regard by North Koreans.
Responses arrived inside boxes from Japan. They were filled with dried foodstuffs, chewing gum, rice crackers, chocolates, sachets of food flavoring, stationery, clothes, medicines, and Japanese yen, but were often plundered by government censors.
Letters home, to cities and towns across Japan, were a lifeline of support for family in North Korea. Unexpectedly, repatriates’ correspondence soon took on a life of its own.
IS SHE ALIVE OR DEAD?
By the time she took the stage, Ikeda Fumiko, a resident of Setagaya-ku, Tokyo had already been campaigning for several years to bring Japanese from North Korea home.
Desperate to contact relatives who, in some cases, had not been heard from since they left for North Korea ten years prior, the families of Japanese repatriates mobilized around Ikeda’s organization, the Association for Human Rights of Japanese Wives of North Korean Repatriates (AHRJW).
Ikeda collected hundreds of letters from Japanese wives of repatriated Koreans, presenting them as evidence to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Japanese Red Cross.
“Ten years have passed since my husband died, and we are barely able to make our livelihood,” one such letter, dated April 1973, reads. “I sometimes feel envious of the beggars in Japan. Please send me something if you have extra things.”
Even with state censors working overtime, the reality of life in North Korea made it back to anxious families in Japan
Appealing to the public, Ikeda put advertisements in Japanese newspapers, the Mainichi Shimbun and the Asahi Shimbun, and organized marches through Tokyo.
She petitioned Han Duk Soo, chairman of Chongryon. Chongryon reportedly responded with “violent words and threats that criticized the Japanese government.”
Frustrated by the slow, grinding cogs of Japanese bureaucracy, Ikeda and her group looked to international support for their cause.
“We ask that the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross send an inquiry commission to North Korea to investigate the safety of Japanese wives,” an AHRJW pamphlet titled ‘I Want to See my Daughter, My Beloved Daughter’ demanded.
“The wives [must] be permitted to return to Japan to see their families.”
The case was compelling: Pyongyang was keeping their sisters and daughters — Japanese citizens — against their will.
Ikeda and her team translated and submitted mountains of correspondence to the International Red Cross and the UN, as evidence of North Korean human rights abuses.
Citing the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she compelled UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim to send a fact-finding mission into the country.
North Korea was violating the fundamental human rights of Japanese wives and their families, Ikeda argued. These people were living in a “prison without bars.”
The movement to return family members from North Korea gathered further momentum with the creation of The American Committee for Human Rights of Japanese Wives of North Korean Repatriates. And it was in a demonstration of solidarity to pressure the UN that Ikeda and supporters staged the seven-day fast in central New York.
FORTY YEARS LATER
The repatriation of tens of thousands of Koreans and Japanese was a tragedy arising from the deception and misinformation of the DPRK and Japanese governments. It happened during a rare moment in time when the interests of two mutually antagonistic East Asian states aligned.
Despite the greatest efforts of individuals like Ikeda Fumiko in forcing the issue to the highest international organization in the world, anxious mothers and sisters would come no closer to reuniting with family in North Korea.
Kim Il Sung refused UN requests for a fact-finding mission. Families in Japan continue to wait in vain for information on sisters, daughters, and mothers. The failure to return Japanese citizens to their homeland has been largely forgotten, swept up in kidnapping revelations and missiles launched over Japan.
In 2014, forty years after Ikeda stood at the podium and called for justice for her sister and 7,000 other Japanese trapped in North Korea, the UN Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) concluded that the North Korean government had systematically violated human rights including freedom from discrimination, freedom of movement and residence, and the right to food.
Among those to take the stand during the hearings in Geneva, Switzerland were several Japanese who had escaped from North Korea.
The testimonies of returnee Japanese and DPRK escapees prompted the UN General Assembly to pass resolution 69/188 condemning Pyongyang’s human rights abuses. Despite a recommendation that the UN Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), further action is yet to be taken.
As in 1974, Pyongyang continues to prevent further inquiries, breaking silence only to threaten witnesses. At some point in the future, North Korea will be held accountable for its long history of human rights violations.
When that time comes, the story of the Japanese women and children who were ‘repatriated’ to the warm bosom of the fatherland will hopefully be a part of the prosecution.
When that day comes, perhaps the surviving Japanese will be allowed to come home.
Edited by James Fretwell
This article is part two of a two-part series. You can read part one here.The thick lenses in her large-framed glasses magnify Ikeda Fumiko’s eyes. With her hair pulled back in a bun, she looks determined as she addresses some 700 protestors on a chilly New York day in 1974.Despite a long afternoon of speeches and the fatigue of a week-long fast, her audience appears attentive as Ikeda
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.