TOKYO – Five people who say they were promised “paradise on Earth” in North Korea but suffered human rights violations instead told a Japanese court Thursday that they were deceived and kidnapped to that country and that they now want its leader Kim Jong Un to compensate them.
The hearing became possible after the Tokyo District Court in August agreed to summon Kim to speak, according to Kenji Fukuda, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. They are not expecting Kim to appear or to compensate them if the court orders it. But Fukuda hopes the case can set a precedent for the Japanese government to negotiate with North Korea in the future on seeking the North’s responsibility and normalizing diplomatic ties.
Hundreds of thousands of Koreans came to Japan, many forcibly, to work in mines and factories during Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula — a past that still strains relations between Japan and the Koreas.
In 1959, North Korea began a massive resettlement program to bring overseas Koreans home and to make up for workers killed in the Korean War. The program continued to seek recruits, many of them originally from South Korea, until 1984.
North Korea had promised free health care, education, jobs and other benefits, but none was available and the returnees were mostly assigned manual work at mines, forests or farms, one of the plaintiffs, Eiko Kawasaki, 79, a Korean who was born and raised in Japan, said last month.
“In North Korea, I lived in shock, sorrow and fear for 43 years,” Kawasaki told reporters after the hearing. Kawasaki, born and raised in Kyoto, was 17 when she took a ship to the North in 1960 and was confined there until defecting in 2003, leaving behind her grown children.
“I believe it was a miracle that I could return to Japan alive,” Kawasaki said, adding that she was glad to have her ordeal heard by the court.
“But this is not the goal. This is the beginning of our fight against North Korea,” Kawasaki said. “We'll keep fighting until the day everyone who went to North Korea on the repatriation ship can return to Japan and get to see their families.”
The plaintiffs are demanding 100 million yen ($900,000) each in compensation from North Korea.
Fukuda said the goal at Thursday's hearing was for all five plaintiffs to show how North Korea illegally and systematically lured them by deception and to establish legal bases before asking the Japanese government to diplomatically resolve the problem.
The ruling is expected in March.
Kanae Doi, Japan director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the plaintiffs' testimonies “made it clear that North Korea was hell not paradise against the propaganda victims." She urged North Korea to immediately allow others to return to Japan and that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida should demand Kim Jong Un do so.
The Japanese government, viewing Koreans as outsiders, also welcomed the resettlement program and helped arrange for participants to travel to North Korea. About 93,000 ethnic Korean residents of Japan and their family members went to North Korea.
Today, about half a million ethnic Koreans live in Japan and still face discrimination in school, work and daily lives.
The court case was brought in 2018 by five participants who ultimately defected back to Japan — four ethnic Koreans and a Japanese woman who joined the program with her Korean husband and their daughter.
The plaintiffs are now concerned about their families still stuck in the North. Kawasaki says she had lost contact with them since November 2019, apparently due to the pandemic. She can't send them money and all care packages she had sent came back.
“I don't even know if they are alive,” she said.