NIIGATA – Eiko Kawasaki stood at the port of Niigata, from where she left for North Korea over 60 years ago, and threw chrysanthemum flowers into the sea to pray for her peers who could not return. Then she burst into tears.
As a 17-year-old girl in search of a better life, Kawasaki joined a North Korean-led resettlement program that promised a ‘heaven on earth’ – where everything was supposed to be free and where those who did. Korean roots like her could live without being discriminated against. .
Kawasaki was among some 93,000 Korean ethnic residents in Japan and their relatives who joined the program only to find out the opposite of what had been promised. Most were subjected to brutal manual labor in mines, forests and farms and faced discrimination due to the past colonization of the Korean Peninsula by Japan.
One of the few survivors to return to Japan, her hometown, Kawasaki, now 79, is on a mission to keep alive the tragic stories and memories of the deceived victims of “resettlement”.
She aspires to open a museum and revitalize a street in Niigata to commemorate the resettlement program under the auspices of Japanese and Korean friendship groups.
Kawasaki held a commemoration ceremony at the port in early December, marking the day the first ship left for North Korea 62 years ago. The participants offered a minute’s silence to the victims who had perished despite their hopes of one day returning to Japan.
“Fortunately, I came back living in Japan. Since I view my life here as an added bonus that I have received, I want to devote all of my time to doing whatever I can to make sure this tragedy does not happen again, ”said Kawasaki.
Born in Japan’s former capital, Kyoto, as a second-generation Korean, she was curious to see the much-vaunted but isolated Communist country after studying at a pro-North Korean school. She says she was brainwashed.
Kawasaki had doubts about the future promised when its ferry arrived at a North Korean port and was greeted by hundreds of corpses covered in soot from head to toe, she said.
“Everything looked completely dark,” she recalls. North Korea’s third largest international port looked a lot more seedy than Niigata port. “At that point, I realized that I had been cheated.”
Then she saw her old classmate who had left for North Korea earlier, picking up leftover lunch boxes that Kawasaki and the other passengers had not finished. The classmate told her that she should have eaten it because she would no longer have access to such good food.
“I was stunned and thought my heart would stop in shock,” Kawasaki recalls.
Kawasaki remained stranded in North Korea for more than 40 years until she fled in 2003 to Japan without telling anyone – including her family – “after seeing the bodies of those who died of hunger “during famines,” she said.
Although Kawasaki is safe in Japan, she never feels comfortable as she worries about her husband and children still in North Korea. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has lost contact with them and all letters and packages she sent have been returned.
“My biggest worry now is their survival,” said Kawasaki.
Kawasaki and other defectors want to rejuvenate a 1.5 kilometer (about 1 mile) stretch called “Bodnam”, or Willow Street, by planting new trees to replace those that have withered or died since the program ended. resettlement in 1984. Older trees were planted. to mark the 1959 launch of the resettlement program.
“The streets have turned dirty because people have paid little or no attention to the resettlement program. I thought I had to change that, ”Kawasaki said.
Among his supporters is Harunori Kojima, 90, a former communist who previously supported the resettlement program.
Kojima said he wanted to join the Bodnam Street project because of a sense of guilt and regret for having long supported the program despite the difficult conditions in the North.
He saw the reality on a trip to North Korea in 1964 but “could not tell the truth” to those associated with the pro-Pyongyang organization or to his Japanese Communist comrades. “This matter still torments my heart. “
Kojima published a book in 2016 that included photos he took of those who left for North Korea, newspaper clips endorsing the program, and letters he received from victims who aspired to return to Japan, as a means of documenting history – and as an atonement.
He noted that the repatriation was strongly supported by the Japanese government, the Japanese media and many non-profit organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.
A 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report described the victims of the resettlement program as “forcibly missing” people whom North Korea has kept under strict surveillance, deprived of their liberty and freedom of movement. He said many were likely to be among the first victims of the famines of the 1990s due to their lower social status.
Kawasaki and several other defectors are seeking damages in a lawsuit against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for human rights violations they say they suffered in connection with the resettlement program.
Kim is not expected to appear or compensate them even if the court orders it, but the plaintiffs hope the case can set a precedent for the Japanese government to negotiate with North Korea in the future over the question of the responsibility of the victim. North. A decision is expected in March.
Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.