By Tessa Morris-Suzuki (Australian National University)
“This is the story of one of the most extraordinary forgotten tragedies of the Cold War: the “return” of over 90,000 people, most of them ethnic Koreans, from Japan to North Korea from 1959 onward. Presented to the world as a humanitarian venture and conducted under the supervision of the International Red Cross, the scheme was actually the result of political intrigues involving the governments of Japan , North Korea , the Soviet Union, and the United States . The great majority of the Koreans who journeyed to North Korea in fact originated from the southern part of the Korean peninsula, and many had lived all their lives in Japan . Though most left willingly, persuaded by propaganda that a bright new life awaited them in North Korea , I drew on recently declassified documents to reveal the covert pressures used to hasten the departure of this unwelcome ethnic minority. For most, their new home proved a place of poverty and hardship; for thousands, it was a place of persecution and death. In rediscovering their extraordinary personal stories, this book also casts new light on the politics of the Cold War and on present-day tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world.” (Tessa Morris-Suzuki)
EXODUS TO NORTH KOREA MUSEUM website by the author
The Forgotten Victims of the North Korean Crisis
By Tessa Morris-Suzuki
Between 1959 and 1984, these few were among the 93,340 people who migrated from Japan to North Korea in search of a new and better life. There were several particularly ironic features of this migration. First, it took place precisely at the time of Japan’s “economic miracle”. Secondly, although it was described as a “repatriation”, almost all those who “returned” to North Korea originally came from the south of the Korean peninsula, and many had been born and lived all their lives in Japan. Third, the glowing images of life which tempted them to Kim Il Sung’s “worker’s paradise” came, not just from the North Korean propaganda machine but from the Japanese mainstream media, supported and encouraged by politicians including key members of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
After decades in North Korea, around one hundred migrants have now escaped the harsh realities of life there, and made the perilous return journey back to Japan. Other survivors of the same project who managed to escape have settled in South Korea.
The story of their migration has been almost entirely unheard by the rest of the world. But it urgently needs to be heard, not least because it involves an injustice that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, and is still causing the deaths and untold suffering today. The history of this migration also reveals the complexity of postwar Japan’s connections with North Korea: and without understanding this, it is impossible fully to understand the impasse which their relations have now reached.
As secret documents from the Cold War era are declassified and testimony from survivors emerges, the true story of this mass movement is now starting to emerge for the first time. We now know that it was the product of a deliberate policy, very carefully designed and implemented at the height of the Cold War by the North Korean and Japanese governments often working in concert, and supported in various ways by the Soviet Union, the United States and the International Red Cross movement. It is a history that sheds important light on the complex background to Northeast Asia’s contemporary conflicts. It also evokes chilling echoes of other coerced or manipulated migrations, including the repatriation of Eastern Europeans to the Soviet Union and other Communist countries in the immediate post-war era.