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At age 17, Kawasaki Eiko boarded a ship from her home in Japan and headed to North Korea, a land depicted as paradise on earth with free education, healthcare, food, and ample jobs. The year was 1960, and Kawasaki and hundreds of other Zainichi Koreans—ethnically Korean residents in Japan—were desperate to leave the poverty and discrimination they faced in Japan after World War II. Propaganda by North Korea and groups representing Koreans in Japan provided a seemingly simple solution: move to North Korea.
As the boat drew near the North Korean port of Chongjin, Kawasaki and her fellow passengers realized their mistake: The harbor was dingy, and the people looked malnourished and overworked. Someone on shore yelled at them to turn back, but it was too late. For the next 43 years, Kawasaki had no choice but to stay in North Korea, as the government monitored the immigrants and denied them freedom of movement. It wouldn’t be until 2004 that she would return to her family back in Japan.
Kawasaki’s parents grew up in what is now considered South Korea then migrated to Japan for work as Japan had colonized Korea. After the end of World War II, these ethnic Koreans lost their Japanese citizenship and became second-class citizens. With the backing of the North Korean government, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (called Chongryon) began conducting a campaign to persuade Zainichi Koreans to move to North Korea, calling it a “Paradise on Earth.”
It was a win-win for both North Korea and Japan: North Korea needed a larger labor force, and Japan wanted to get rid of the Zainichi Koreans. The Red Cross interviewed those “returning” to their homeland to make sure they were going voluntarily. Yet few had ever been to North Korea before: 90 percent of Zainichi Koreans are from South Korea. Between 1959 and 1984, 93,000 people migrated from Japan to North Korea, among them 6,000 Japanese wives married to Korean men.
At the time, Kawasaki had not yet graduated from high school, and the rest of her family begged her not to go. But the dream of a perfect communist state tugged at her until she made the journey in 1960. She left from Niigata, a small, poor fishing port in Japan, and when she arrived at North Korea’s main Chongjin port, she was shocked to find that its condition was worse than Niigata’s.
With no way out, Kawasaki kept quiet and studied engineering. She married a North Korean man and had five children, yet her family faced discrimination because she had lived in Japan. The thought of escaping first came to her after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994. Bad government policies, a loss of Soviet aid, and flooding led to a severe famine that killed at least 3 million.
Kawasaki remembers seeing dead bodies strewn on the side of the road and wondering why she survived when so many around her died. At the same time, Kim Jong Il began spending extravagantly to create a giant hall and mausoleum for his father. Righteous indignation burned within Kawasaki as she observed the disparity between the lives of the elite and the common people: She began to plan her escape.
With help from some money her brother in Japan sent to her, a broker helped Kawasaki cross the Yalu River into China in 2003, where she stayed for the next year and a half. She considered herself one of the lucky ones, as her brother’s money allowed her to stay with the broker and she was not trafficked like many other North Korean defectors. She tried to make money teaching Japanese in order to buy a Chinese passport to return to Japan.
But her brother suggested that she try to come to Japan as a refugee. So Kawasaki went to the Japanese Embassy and announced that she was a North Korean defector. Back in Japan, her brother approached the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, showing them Kawasaki’s birth record and school transcripts and presenting himself as the guarantor for his sister. The Japanese government flew Kawasaki back to Japan, and after 44 years she finally reunited with her family.
Kawasaki is one of a few hundred North Korean defectors who live in Japan; most of the Zainichi Koreans who went to North Korea haven’t been heard from since. Only one of Kawasaki’s five children has defected to Japan.
Since returning to Japan, Kawasaki has been an activist for North Korean human rights. Now 75, she’s written a book about her experiences, started the NGO Korea for All, and helps other North Korean defectors adjust to living in Japan. In 2015, Kawasaki and 10 other returnees petitioned the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to charge the Japanese and North Korean governments, the Red Cross, and Chongryon for abusing their human rights. The returnees argued that they are all complicit in allowing the repatriation program to continue even when it became obvious North Korea was lying.
Earlier this year, Kawasaki brought the petition up to the International Criminal Court, asking it to declare the Zainichi Korean repatriation program a crime against humanity and charge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While Kawasaki at 75 looks like a sweet grandma, she has strong words for the Kim regime that entrapped her for 43 years.
“I hope the United Nations pushes for more sanctions and President Donald Trump gives Kim Jong Un two choices: Either give up as a dictator or give up your life,” Kawasaki said. “The only way to save the North Korean people is if the United States and United Nations push North Korea to change its regime.”