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SEOUL – One beautiful morning in August 1960, after two days of sailing from Japan, hundreds of passengers rushed onto the deck as someone shouted, “I see the homeland!”

The ship parked in Chongjin, a port city in North Korea, where crowds of people waved paper flowers and sang songs of welcome. But Lee Tae-kyung sensed something terribly abnormal in the “paradise” he had been promised.

“The people gathered were expressionless,” Mr. Lee recalls. “I was just an 8 year old, but I knew we were in the wrong place.”

Mr. Lee and his family were among 93,000 people who migrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 as part of a repatriation program sponsored by the two governments and their Red Cross societies. When they arrived, they saw poor villages and people living in poverty, but were forced to stay. Some ended up in prison camps.

“We were told we were going to a ‘heaven on earth’,” said Mr. Lee, 68. “Instead, we were taken to hell and denied one of the most basic human rights: the freedom to leave.

Mr. Lee eventually fled North Korea after 46 years, reaching South Korea in 2009. Since then, he has campaigned tirelessly to share the stories of these 93,000 migrants, giving talks, speaking at conferences press and writing a memoir on a painful and mostly forgotten chapter in Japanese-Korean history.

His work comes at a time of renewed interest in human rights abuses in North Korea, and when leaders in Japan and South Korea remain particularly sensitive to the opening of old wounds between the two countries. .

“It was my mom who urged my dad to take our family up north,” Lee said. “And that was his endless source of regret until his death at 74.”

The Lees were among two million Koreans who moved to Japan during Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Some went there to look for work, others were taken to forced labor in the Japanese WWII effort. global. Lacking citizenship and financial opportunities, most returned to Korea after the Japanese surrender.

But hundreds of thousands of people, including Mr. Lee’s family, remained as the Korean Peninsula was embroiled in war.

Mr. Lee was born in Japan in 1952. The family ran a charcoal grill restaurant in Shimonoseki, the closest port to Korea – a reminder that they would return home.

When the Korean War ended, the Japanese government was eager to get rid of the crowds of Koreans living in slums. For its part, in hopes of using them to help rebuild its war-torn economy, North Korea has launched a propaganda blitz, touting itself as a “paradise” with jobs for all, free education and medical services.

Mr. Lee’s primary school in Japan, he said, screened propaganda news from North Korea showing bumper crops and workers building “a house every 10 minutes.” Walks were organized to call for repatriation. A pro-North Korea group in Japan has even encouraged students to be recruited as “birthday gifts” for Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, according to a recent report by the Citizens Alliance for Human Rights. North Korea.

Japan approved the migration despite the fact that most of the country’s Koreans came from the South, which was mired in political turmoil. While Japanese authorities have said ethnic Koreans have chosen to settle in North Korea, human rights groups have accused the country of aiding and encouraging deception by ignoring the circumstances under which the migrants would face in the communist country.

“On leaving for North Korea, ethnic Koreans were forced to sign an exit-only document which prohibited them from entering Japan,” the Citizens Alliance report said. The authors compared migration to a “slave trade” and “forced displacement”.

Most of the migrants were of Korean descent, but they also included 1,800 Japanese women married to Korean men and thousands of biracial children. Among them was a young woman named Ko Yong-hee, who would later become a dancer and give birth to Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea and grandson of its founder.

When Mr. Lee’s family boarded the ship in 1960, his parents believed Korea would be reunited soon. Mr. Lee’s mother gave him and his four siblings money and told them to enjoy their last days in Japan. Mr. Lee bought a mini pinball machine. Her younger sister brought home a doll that closed her eyes when she was lying on the bed.

“It was the last freedom we would taste,” he says.

He realized that his family had been duped, he said, when he saw the people of Chongjin, who “all looked poor and ashen.” In rural North Korea where her family was ordered to relocate, they were shocked to see people do without shoes or umbrellas in the rain.

In 1960 alone, 49,000 people emigrated from Japan to North Korea, but the number declined sharply as rumors spread about real conditions in the country. Despite the watchful eye of censors, families have devised ways to notify their loved ones. A man wrote a message on the back of a postage stamp:

“We cannot leave the village,” he wrote in the small space, urging his brother in Japan not to come.

Mr. Lee’s aunt sent a letter to his mother telling her to consider immigrating to North Korea when her nephew was of marrying age. The message was clear: the nephew was only 3 years old.

To survive, migrants often relied on money and parcels sent by relatives still in Japan. At school, Mr. Lee said, children called him “ban-jjokbari,” an offensive term for Koreans in Japan. Everyone lived in constant fear of being labeled disloyal and banished to prison camps.

“For North Korea, they served as hostages held for ransom,” said Kim So-hee, co-author of the report. “Families in Japan have been asked to pay for the release of their loved ones from the prison camps.”

Mr Lee has become a doctor, one of the best jobs available for migrants from Japan who have been denied government jobs. He said his medical background enabled him to witness the collapse of the public health system following the famine of the 1990s, when doctors in North Korea were forced to use bottles of beer for make IVs.

He fled to China in 2006 as part of a refugee surge, spending two and a half years in prison in Myanmar when he and his smuggler were detained for human trafficking. After arriving in Seoul in 2009, Mr. Lee helped smuggle his wife and daughter out of North Korea. But he still has parents, including a son, stuck in the country, he said.

His wife passed away in 2013, and now Mr. Lee lives alone in a small rented apartment in Seoul. “But I have the freedom,” he said. “I would have sacrificed everything for that.”

Mr. Lee formed an association with 50 Koreans of Japanese descent who emigrated to North Korea and fled south. Each December, the group meets to mark the anniversary of the start of mass migration in 1959. Their memoirs are nearing completion. His generation is the last to have firsthand experience of what happened to those 93,000 migrants, he said.

“It’s sad that our stories are buried when we die,” Lee said.

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