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. The plaintiffs aren’t expecting Kim to show up or compensate them, but they will comply with any court order. Fukuda believes the case will set an example for Japan to work with North Korea on the future, namely by seeking North Korea’s accountability and normalizing diplomatic relations.
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. Kawasaki stated that this is only the start of our fight against North Korea. “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 claims she lost touch with them in November 2019,, possibly due to the pandemic. Kawasaki says she can’t send money to them and that all the care packages they sent have been returned.
“I don’t even know if they are alive,” she said.