On a bright August morning in 1960, after two days of sailing from Japan, hundreds of passengers rushed on deck as someone shouted, “I see the fatherland!”
The ship pulled into Chongjin, a port city in North Korea, where a crowd of people waved paper flowers and sang welcome songs. But Lee Tae-kyung felt something dreadfully amiss in the “paradise” he had been promised.
“The people gathered were expressionless,” Lee recalled. “I was only a child of eight, but I knew we were in the wrong place.”
Lee and his family were among 93,000 people who migrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 under a repatriation program sponsored by both governments and their Red Cross societies. When they arrived, they saw destitute villages and people living in poverty but were forced to stay. Some ended up in prison camps.
“We were told we were going to a ‘paradise on earth,’” said Lee, 68. “Instead, we were taken to a hell and denied a most basic human right: the freedom to leave.”
Lee eventually fled North Korea after 46 years, reaching South Korea in 2009. He has since campaigned tirelessly to share the story of those 93,000 migrants, giving lectures, speaking at news conferences and writing a memoir about a painful, mostly forgotten chapter of history between Japan and Korea.
His work comes at a time of renewed interest in North Korean human rights violations, and when leaders in Japan and South Korea remain particularly sensitive about opening old wounds between the two countries.
“It was my mother who urged my father to take our family to the North,” Lee said. “And it was her endless source of regret until she died at age 74.”
The Lees were among 2 million Koreans who moved to Japan during Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Some went there looking for work, others were taken for forced labour in Japan’s Second World War effort. Lacking citizenship and financial opportunities, most returned to Korea after the Japanese surrender.
But hundreds of thousands, among them Lee’s family, remained as the Korean Peninsula was plunged into war.
Lee was born in Japan in 1952. The family ran a charcoal-grill restaurant in Shimonoseki, the port closest to Korea — a reminder that they would return home.
As the Korean War came to an end, the Japanese government was eager to get rid of the throngs of Koreans living in slums. For its part, hoping to use them to help rebuild its war-torn economy, North Korea launched a propaganda blitz, touting itself as a “paradise” with jobs for everyone, free education and medical services.
Lee’s primary school in Japan, he said, screened propaganda newsreels from North Korea showing bumper crops and workers building “a house every 10 minutes.” Marches were organised calling for repatriation. A pro-North Korea group in Japan even encouraged students to be recruited as “birthday gifts” for Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, according to a recent report from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
Japan approved of the migration despite the fact that most Koreans in the country were from the South, which was mired in political unrest. While Japanese authorities said ethnic Koreans chose to relocate to North Korea, human rights groups have accused the country of aiding and abetting the deception by ignoring the circumstances the migrants would face in the communist country.
“By leaving for North Korea, ethnic Koreans were forced to sign an exit-only document that prohibited them from returning to Japan,” the Citizens’ Alliance report said. The authors likened the migration to a “slave trade” and “forced displacement.”
Most of the migrants were ethnic Koreans, but they also included 1,800 Japanese women married to Korean men and thousands of biracial children. Among them was a young woman named Ko Yong Hee, who would later become a dancer and give birth to Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea and grandson of its founder.
When Lee’s family boarded the ship in 1960, his parents thought Korea would soon be reunited. Lee’s mother gave him and his four siblings cash and told them to enjoy their last days in Japan. Lee bought a mini pinball-game machine. His younger sister brought home a baby doll that closed its eyes when it lay on the bed.
“It was the last freedom we would taste,” he said.
He realised his family had been duped, he said, when he saw the people at Chongjin, who “all looked poor and ashen.” In the rural North Korean county where his family was ordered to resettle, they were shocked to see people go without shoes or umbrellas in the rain.
In 1960 alone, 49,000 people migrated from Japan to North Korea, but the number sharply declined as word spread of the true conditions in the country. Despite the watchful eye of censors, families devised ways to warn their relatives. One man wrote a message on the back of a postage stamp: “We are not able to leave the village,” he wrote in the tiny space, urging his brother in Japan not to come.
Lee’s aunt sent her mother a letter telling her to consider immigrating to North Korea when her nephew was old enough to marry. The message was clear: The nephew was only three.
To survive, the migrants often relied on cash and packages sent by relatives in Japan. In school, Lee said, children called him “ban-jjokbari,” an insulting term for Koreans from Japan. Everyone lived under constant fear of being called disloyal and banished to prison camps.
“For North Korea, they served as hostages held for ransom,” said Kim So-hee, co-author of the report. “Families in Japan were asked to pay for the release of their relatives from prison camps.”
Lee became a doctor, one of the best jobs available to migrants from Japan who were denied government jobs. He said his medical experience allowed him to witness the collapse of the public health system in the wake of the famine in the 1990s, when doctors in North Korea were forced to use beer bottles to construct IVs.
He fled to China in 2006 as part of a stream of refugees, spending two and a half years in prison in Myanmar when he and his smuggler were detained for human trafficking. After arriving in Seoul in 2009, Lee helped smuggle his wife and daughter out of North Korea. But he still has relatives, including a son, stuck in the country, he said.
His wife died in 2013, and now Lee lives alone in a small rented apartment in Seoul. “But I have freedom,” he said. “I would have sacrificed everything else for it.”
Lee has formed an association with 50 ethnic Koreans from Japan who migrated to North Korea and escaped to the South. Every December, the group meets to mark the anniversary of the beginning of the mass migration in 1959. His memoir is nearly complete. His generation is the last to have firsthand experience of what happened to those 93,000 migrants, he said.
“It’s sad that our stories will be buried when we die,” Lee said.