Hell in North Korea: the story of the thousands tricked into returning to «paradise»

In the late 1950s, young Eiko Kawasaki was bombarded for months with formidable stories about the new «paradise on earth». Forged in North Korea under the tutelage of Kim Il Sung, the supposed socialist Eden offered free education and health care and guaranteed housing and work, all in a harmonious environment in which no one suffered hardships thanks to the good work of the State.

It was painted so well that, at just 17 years old, he said goodbye to his family to embark for the promised land. The reality bathroom couldn’t have been more raw.

«As soon as I set foot on solid ground, I realized that everything they had told me in Japan was a lie,» he told reporters this month in Tokyo. Excited, she recognized that thousands like her they swallowed the false propaganda and made the wrong decision.

«No one would have gone if they had not been deceived,» added this 77-year-old woman, who fled the communist country in 2003. Behind he left more than four decades of deprivation and his five children.

Salutations for the «fathers» of the homeland in North Korea. AFP photo

The plan

Kawasaki was part of one of the most controversial projects of the cold war: the exodus to North Korea of ​​93,000 zainichi, as the Koreans settled in Japan during the era of Japanese colonial rule over the Korean peninsula (1910-1945) are known.

The ambitious repatriation program it was extended between 1959 and 1984, and it was one of the most outstanding projects of the grandfather of the current dictator, Kim Jong Un, which for its execution had the collaboration of the Japanese Government and the International Red Cross.

To understand the reasons for this massive migration, it is convenient to review history. During the years of Japanese colonial occupation, up to two million Koreans went to Japan, either voluntarily or as forced labor for a booming military industry.

After the defeat of Tokyo in World War II against the United States (summer 1945), the majority chose to return to their places of origin. Even so, some 600,000 stayed despite being despised by the localsThey had to be employed in the hardest jobs and the authorities were suspicious of them (in 1952 their nationality was even withdrawn).

Kim Il-sung with his wife Kim Jong-suk and their children Kim Jong-il and Kim Kyong-hui.

Kim Il-sung with his wife Kim Jong-suk and their children Kim Jong-il and Kim Kyong-hui.

This was the context when, in 1958, Kim invited «compatriots without rights and discriminated against living in Japan» to return to the mother country. With this gesture, the communist nation aspired to raise capital, technical expertise and manpower, much needed for a country undergoing reconstruction after the bloody civil war against its southern neighbor.

In addition, it allowed him to “boast of his supposed superiority with respect to South Korea and highlight your most humanitarian side, which gave it legitimacy at the international level ”, highlighted a recent study by the Citizen Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea.


For its proselytizing work, Pyongyang turned to Chongryon, an association of Koreans living in Japan with ties to the Kim regime. In their schools, they screened documentaries showing bountiful harvests and workers building “a house every 10 minutes”.

Its militants went door to door with photos of smiling proletarians and houses equipped with modern appliances. Some visits were even organized by Japanese diplomats to North Korea, who on their return glossed over the thousand wonders they encountered there.

For its part, Tokyo saw in this migratory wave an opportunity to get rid of the zainichi, which he considered problematic due to their dependence on state aid or suspicions that they were communists or spies, as pointed out by academic Tessa Morris-Suzuki.

The ploy was successful and, only in 1960, some 49,000 people headed for North Korean lands.

«A warm welcome to our compatriots from Japan on their return home!»read on one of the banners that adorned the two Soviet ships, the Krylio and the Tobolsk, which during the first years were in charge of the human transfer from the port of Niigata (western Japan) to Chongjin, the third largest North Korean city.

Kim Jong Il pictured with his father Kim Il Sung.  AP Photo

Kim Jong Il in the photo with his father Kim Il Sung. AP Photo

In other images of the time, people are seen smiling, waving North Korean pennants or singing patriotic songs, prints that illustrate the festive spirit that permeated their journey.


Nevertheless, That illusion vanished as soon as we saw North Korean lands. For some, the blindfold fell when they saw the miserable appearance of Chongjin port or the rags in which its inhabitants dressed. Others, seeing how the fresh and lush food in the photographs turned into meager portions and of dubious quality.

And in case they still had any doubts, the surly treatment they received as soon as they arrived made it clear that they were not as well received as they believed.

“In the great egalitarian paradise, you had to quickly learn your place. If you had good contacts and influential friends in Chongryon or the Workers’ Party, they sent you to live in the capital, Pyongyang, or in Wosan, the second largest city. If not, there was nothing to do ”, account in his autobiographical book A river in the dark Masaji Ishikawa, barely a teenager when he traveled to North Korea with his family in 1960.

This man, who fled the country in the mid-90s, recounts how the neighbors organized themselves into groups of five families in which there was a person in charge of inform the police about its members.

“They especially watched the nobodies, because being so automatically made you a suspect. These kinds of people, people like us, were sent to remote villages to work as servants.. In North Korea we were back at the lowest”.

The testimonies collected over the years reflect similar stories. While the adults worked in the mine or the field without the possibility of social advancement, their children were bullied at school (“Japanese bastard « it was one of the most recurrent insults).

Many suffered from malnutrition and illness, physical or mental. No one was free and could not return to Japan. Everyone lived in constant fear of being accused disloyalty and end up in a prison camp victims of continuous purges.

To survive, whoever was able to turn to those close to him that still remained in Japan, who sent money, food and other belongings. The censorship closely monitored correspondence, but they still managed to alert their own not to come.

This is the case of a woman who told her mother by letter to emigrate to North Korea when her nephew was of marriageable age. The nephew in question was only three years old at the time.

But after decades of deprivation, the worst came with the great famine of the 1990s.

«You could see the bodies scattered in the streets, including those of many children,» Kawasaki described.

Already a widow, this woman managed to escape the country in March 2003 through the border with China thanks to the help of an intermediary to whom she paid with what she had saved over four decades. A year later he arrived in Japan, where no day goes by without thinking about the children he left behind.

«The last time I was able to speak to one of them was in November 2019,» he recalls. Since then, silence.

That same year, Kawasaki and four other victims like her filed a lawsuit against the northern country in which they demand the payment of almost four million euros for what they consider «A kidnapping under deception sponsored by that State ”.

After two years of proceedings, the trial is scheduled to start next October 14. The plaintiffs are aware that Pyongyang disdains the process and The sentence will not appear or abide by.

But they hope that the case draws attention to their history and the situation of their still trapped relatives and serves as a precedent for future negotiations between the governments of both countries. “It took us a long time to get here. It is time for justice to be done «Kawasaki noted.

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