SEOUL – On a bright August morning in 1960, after two days of sailing from Japan, hundreds of passengers rushed up on deck when someone yelled, “I see the homeland!”
The ship reached Chongjin, a port city in North Korea, where a crowd waved paper flowers and sang welcome songs. But Lee Tae-kyung felt that something was terribly wrong in the “paradise” that he had been promised.
“The people gathered were expressionless,” Lee recalled. “I was only an 8-year-old, but I knew we were in the wrong place.”
Mr. Lee and his family were among 93,000 people who emigrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 under a repatriation program sponsored by both governments and Red Cross societies. When they arrived, they saw homeless villages and people who lived in poverty, but were forced to stay. Some ended up in prison camps.
“They told us we were going to ‘paradise on earth,'” said Lee, 68. “Instead, they took us to hell and denied us one of the most basic human rights: the freedom to leave.”
Mr. Lee finally fled North Korea after 46 years, arriving in South Korea in 2009. Since then he has campaigned tirelessly to share the story of those 93,000 migrants, lecturing, speaking at press conferences, and writing a memoir. about a painful chapter, mostly forgotten history between Japan and Korea.
His work comes at a time of renewed interest in North Korean human rights violations, and when the leaders of Japan and South Korea remain particularly sensitive to opening old wounds between the two countries.
“It was my mother who urged my father to bring our family north,” Lee said. “And it was his inexhaustible source of regret until he died at age 74.”
The Lees were among the two million Koreans who moved to Japan during the Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Some went there in search of work, others were forced into forced labor in Japan’s effort during World War II. Lacking citizenship and financial opportunities, most returned to Korea after the Japanese surrender.
But hundreds of thousands, including Mr. Lee’s family, remained as the Korean peninsula plunged into war.
Mr. Lee was born in Japan in 1952. The family owned a charcoal grill restaurant in Shimonoseki, the closest port to Korea, a reminder that they would return home.
When the Korean War came to an end, the Japanese government was eager to get rid of the multitude of Koreans living in slums. For its part, hoping to use them to help rebuild its war-torn economy, North Korea launched a propaganda barrage, wondering like a “paradise” with jobs for all, free education and medical services.
Mr. Lee’s elementary school in Japan, he said, screened North Korean propaganda news that showed bountiful harvests and workers building “a house every 10 minutes.” Marches were organized calling for repatriation. A pro-North Korean 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 by the North. North Korea Citizens Alliance for Human Rights.
Japan approved of migration despite the fact that the majority of 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 inciting deception by ignoring the circumstances that 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 liked the migration to the “slave trade” and “forced displacement”.
Most of the migrants were ethnic Koreans, but there were also 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 Mr. Lee’s family boarded the ship in 1960, his parents thought that Korea would soon be reunited. Mr. Lee’s mother gave him and his four brothers cash and told them to enjoy their last days in Japan. Mr. Lee bought a mini pinball game machine. Her younger sister brought home a doll that she closed her eyes when she lay on the bed.
“It was the last freedom we ever tried,” he said.
He realized that his family had been deceived, he said, when he saw the people of Chongjin, that “they all looked poor and ashy.” In rural North Korea, where her family was ordered to resettle, they were surprised to see people leaving without shoes or umbrellas in the rain.
In 1960 alone, 49,000 people emigrated from Japan to North Korea, but the number dropped dramatically as word spread about the true conditions in the country. Despite the watchful eye of the censors, the families devised ways to warn their relatives. A man wrote a message on the back of a postage stamp:
“We cannot leave the village,” he wrote in the small space, urging his brother in Japan not to come.
Mr. Lee’s aunt sent his mother a letter telling her to consider emigrating to North Korea when her nephew was old enough to marry. The message was clear: the nephew was only 3 years old.
To survive, migrants often relied on cash and packages sent by relatives still in Japan. At school, Lee said, the children called him “ban-jjokbari,” an insulting term for Koreans in Japan. All lived in constant fear of being called disloyal and exiled to prison camps.
“For North Korea, they served as hostages for ransom,” said Kim So-hee, a co-author of the report. “Families in Japan were asked to pay for the release of their relatives from prison camps.”
Mr. Lee became a doctor, one of the best jobs available to immigrants from Japan who were denied government jobs. He said his medical expertise 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 build IVs.
He fled to China in 2006 as part of a refugee stream and spent two and a half years in prison in Myanmar when he and his trafficker were arrested for human trafficking. After arriving in Seoul in 2009, Mr. Lee helped smuggle his wife and daughter out of North Korea. But he still has relatives, including a son, trapped in the country, he said.
His wife died in 2013 and now Mr. Lee lives alone in a small rented apartment in Seoul. “But I have freedom,” he said. “I would have sacrificed everything else for that.”
Mr. Lee has formed a partnership with 50 ethnic Koreans from Japan who immigrated to North Korea and escaped to the South. Every December, the group meets to commemorate the anniversary of the start of mass migration in 1959. Their memoirs are almost complete. His generation is the last to have a first-hand experience of what happened to those 93,000 migrants, he said.
“It’s sad that our stories are buried when we die,” Lee said.