Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis
Latest Articles


Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan's Cold War

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan's Cold War, by Tessa Morris-Suzuki. Rowman & Littlefield. 302 pages. $29.95.

The road that leads from the center of the northwestern Japanese port city of Niigata toward the docks is called Botonamu Street. Most locals are unaware of the origin of that foreign-sounding name, some people think it even may be Russian. But botonamu is the Japanized version of the Korean word boedeunamu, or "willow tree," because it is lined with willows. These were planted in the late 1950s to celebrate the start of the repatriation of ethnic Koreans in Japan—to North Korea. The "return to their homeland" of 93,340 people—86,603 ethnic Koreans together with 6,731 Japanese and six Chinese spouses or dependents—between 1959 and 1984 is one of the least known events in Japan’s relations with its neighbors since the end of World War II.

But it is also one of the most controversial. Many of the repatriates went back, full of enthusiasm as they thought they were going back to help build their new socialist fatherland—but, before long, became, at best, only disillusioned, while many others perished in the north’s notorious labor camps. And, today, some critics argue that it was an early case of ethnic cleansing. The Japanese authorities wanted to get rid of as many as they could of an unwanted ethnic minority. In the racist view of Takajiro Inoue, then director of the foreign affairs department of the Japan Red Cross Society, the Koreans should be repatriated because of "their very violent character, and the fact that they are divided into several parties, which may turn into an unfortunate accident at any moment."

But why to North Korea and not the south? Relations between Japan and South Korea were strained at that moment, and the south wanted Japan to be responsible for its ethnic Korean minority. Besides, even if very few of the ethnic Koreans in Japan actually came from the north—as many as 97% came from the south, especially Cheju island off the southern coast—they perceived the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as their political and spiritual homeland. The south, they thought, was a puppet state of the United States run by Koreans who had collaborated with the Japanese during the 1910-45 colonial era.

In the mid-1950s, Japanese authorities estimated that about 90% of the then 650,000-strong ethnic Korean community were behind the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, abbreviated Chongryun in Korean and Chosensoren in Japanese. The smaller, pro-Seoul Mindan, had a much weaker profile, and was itself divided between supporters and opponents of the South Korean regime. Most Koreans had been brought to Japan as cheap labor after the peninsula became a Japanese colony, but were always treated as second-class citizens. For them, repatriation seemed a way to freedom from poverty and discrimination.

So an unholy alliance was formed between the Japanese establishment and the Chongryun as they both encouraged repatriation, albeit for entirely different reasons. Chongryun wanted to assist the "fatherland" in getting labor to help rebuild from the ashes of the devastating 1950-53 Korean War, and therefore, it seems, didn’t mind the racist policies of some Japanese authorities.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, a British-born professor of Japanese history at the Australian National University in Canberra, has done the first detailed study in English of this now shameful chapter in Japan’s modern history. She also examines the rather controversial role of the International Committee of the Red Cross in this sordid saga. In some ways, it was deceived into assisting the less-than neutral Japan Red Cross in the repatriation of the Koreans. But getting the ICRC involved was a way for Tokyo to distance itself from fierce criticism from South Korea, and perhaps also other countries, which found it appalling that tens of thousands of people, many of whom were actually second-generation Koreans and thus born in Japan, were being sent to the communist north. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, however, seemed to share the Japanese view, and at some stages in the process the Soviets actively assisted the repatriation efforts.

Ms. Morris-Suzuki has interviewed Koreans who were "repatriated" but later managed to escape and return to Japan, and she has, as perhaps the first international researcher, gone through the archives at the ICRC’s Geneva headquarters. The outcome is a fascinating, and often disturbing, account of how callous authorities caused immense hardships to an already suffering ethnic minority—and of the deceptiveness of the Chongryun, which benefited from financial support for the scheme from the governments in Pyongyang as well as Tokyo.

The horrors many of the immigrants had to endure are described in by Kang Chol-hwan in his book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, a gripping account of how he, at the age of nine, was sent to Yodok, one of the north’s most notorious labor camps, together with his sister, father, uncle and grandmother. Mr. Kang’s grandfather, Kang Tae-gyu, had been the local leader of the Chongryun in Tokyo, and he and some of his closest family members were among the first Koreans who decided to migrate to North Korea, only to end up being arrested on trumped-up charges. The immigrants, Ms. Morris-Suzuki writes, ended up being "disproportionately represented among the victims of North Korean political purges, but they were, of course, neither the only nor the most numerous victims."

Mr. Kang writes that, as the first ship full of repatriates was ready to leave Niigata, the pier was packed with well-wishers shouting "‘Long Live!’ After a blast of the horn, the ship sailed away, bound for North Korea, and with those onboard singing patriotic songs." And when the ship approached the North Korean coast after a 15-hour journey from Niigata, Kim Yong-gil, a famous Korean opera singer from Japan, got up on the bridge. He turned to the promised land and launched into an impromptu but powerful rendition of O Sole Mio, "causing emotions to swell among his fellow passengers."

But, as they came closer to the shore, the mood changed. Another ethnic Korean, quoted in Ms. Morris-Suzuki’s book, says: "I think everyone felt what they saw the scene in front of us—oh no! There was a row of grim-looking warehouses. The wind was blowing hard and it was still cold. The people waiting on the dock for us were all wearing shabby, padded cotton jackets." The ethnic Koreans onboard the ship thought, "This isn’t right. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be" And worse was to come. When Kim Yong-gil first arrived, the North Korean regime welcomed him with open arms, and he was even received by "the Great Leader" Kim Il Sung himself. A few years later, as Mr. Kang writes, "he wound up being condemned as a spy and sent to die in the Senghori hard-labor camp—reputedly one of North Korea’s harshest."

Mr. Kang’s book about his years in a labor camp, before escaping to China and then South Korea, is written in very straightforward and down-to-earth prose; Ms. Morris-Suzuki, by contrast, mixes her narrative with "local color" which doesn’t always work. It is hard to see the relevance of whether a tall Westerner she sees in a Pyongyang hotel, "gazing intently at the landscape below through a pair of high-powered binoculars," is a journalist or not, or what the scene has to do with the story anyway. Time and again we read how many of the issues she encountered during the course of her research at first "didn’t make sense," but later did. Isn’t that the case in most research into any unfamiliar subject?

Nevertheless, this is an outstanding study of how a downtrodden and vulnerable ethnic group of people were caught in grander political schemes, of which they knew little—and how they ended up being victimized once again. Those who remain in North Korea may be forgotten by the outside world, but the row of willows in Niigata stands as a reminder of what happened there.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December, 2007

Back to articles