They Were Promised 'Paradise.' The Destination: North Korea

Lawsuit in Japan seeks retribution for decades-long repatriation program
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 14, 2021 5:35 PM CDT
They Were Promised 'Paradise.' The Destination: North Korea
A boat carrying ethnic Koreans from Japan arrives in North Korea in January 1960.   (Wikimedia Commons)

Some 93,000 people moved from Japan to North Korea in the latter half of the 20th century, many believing they would encounter a "paradise." North Korea—desperate for labor amid efforts to rebuild following two tragic wars—suggested these migrants, many of whom were ethnic Koreans who'd moved (or been forced to move) to Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula prior to 1945, were in for an idyllic life of free health care and education, as well as guaranteed jobs and housing, per the BBC and Guardian. Instead, they found "the enjoyment of human rights was generally impossible," according to a lawsuit demanding Kim Jong Un pay up.

Four ethnic Koreans and a Japanese wife who took part in the repatriation program funded by North Korea from 1959 to 1984 are seeking the equivalent of $880,000 each for "false advertising" in a case playing out in Tokyo district court, though they acknowledge it's somewhat symbolic. "We don't expect North Korea to accept a decision nor pay the damages," says lawyer Kenji Fukuda. But with a favorable ruling, "we hope that the Japanese government would be able to negotiate with North Korea." The Japanese government supported the program, as did the Red Cross, though neither are named in the suit.

The plaintiffs—among the few participants to have escaped the North—say they would never have made the trip if they'd known that poverty, prison camps, and forced manual labor awaited them. "We were told we were going to a 'paradise on Earth,'" 68-year-old Lee Tae-kyung, who spent 46 years in the North before escaping in 2009, told the New York Times earlier this year. "Instead, we were taken to a hell and denied a most basic human right: the freedom to leave." Blocked from returning to Japan, "resettlers were generally classified as a 'hostile' class and subjected to state surveillance and persecution," reads a report from the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights. It likens the program to a "slave trade." (Read more North Korea stories.)

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