|Escaping the Paradise on Earth (1)|
Escaping the Paradise on Earth (1)
Mr. Lee Tae-Kyoung
President of Association of Victims of Forced Repatriation to North Korea
Escaped from North Korea in 2007
And Entered South Korea in 2009
Illustration by Mr. Ahn Choong-kook, Student at Hongik University College of Fine Arts
Among the historical quagmire between the North Korean government, the Japanese government, the Japanese Red Cross, the South Korean government, and Chongryon, the ethnic Koreans living in Japan had no choice but to go back to North Korea. Tae-Gyung Lee was also one of the ethnic Koreans who was born and raised in Japan and repatriated to North Korea. The Paradise on Earth that Chongryon propagated so extensively was a place without freedom, and Lee spent her whole life eyeing an opportunity to escape North Korea. After successfully defecting from North Korea, Lee is currently working to publicize the reality of Korean-Japanese who are living in North Korea as the chairman of the Association of Families of North Korean Refugees.
Born in Japan as a Korean-Japanese
I am a 1.5 generation Korean-Japanese repatriate to North Korea. I was born in Shimonoseki, Japan, and when I was 9, I followed my parents to North Korea. The overall rationale behind the repatriation is fairly ubiquitous among all Korean-Japanese repatriates. Specifically, some people repatriated to learn, and others said they wanted to bury their bones in their homeland, even though North Korea is technically not their homeland. Others went to Japan with an ambition to live a better life. The living conditions that felt destitute in Japan were heavenly compared to those in North Korea.
My parents did not know a thing about politics. Did we know what socialism or communism was? Absolutely not. We were completely deceived by the propaganda. At the time, Chongryon promoted North Korea as ‘paradise on earth.’ Free medical treatment, free education, and wide open doors to learn! Work as you please, learn as you wish, and the houses are all free! It seemed amazing. I was also attending a Joseon school in Japan at the time, and Chongryon administrators came to show us movies about building North Korea. That was 1959. Now that I think about it, the social atmosphere was like repatriating to North Korea was an obvious decision — almost as if it was wrong to stay in Japan.
The Japanese government made efforts to send us anywhere. You could say they “made efforts,” but to put it bluntly, they conspired and schemed. Here’s how I can phrase it: at the time there were a lot of Korean residents in Japan. And out of those Korean residents, there were a lot of welfare recipients, since it was hard for them to make ends meet. There were also a lot of unemployed people. Since there were a lot of people relying on government support, the Japanese government wanted to cut expenses to Korean-Japanese. Furthermore, they thought Korean-Japanese were an obstacle to public safety.
Going to North Korea
In this situation, my father and my mother were fooled and deceived to go to North Korea. My family was on the repatriation ship in 1960. It was December 14, 1959 when the first repatriation ship departed, so we were really one of the firsts to go to North Korea. It was a problem that we were duped into going, but the bigger problem was we weren’t allowed to not go. At the time, Korean-Japanese were not allowed to repatriate to South Korea. In fact, my father and my mother are both from South Korea, and their relatives lived in South Korea. We, however, went to North Korea. I used to say a lot of things I regret to my father regarding this.
I remember vividly when I went to North Korea on the repatriation ship. The meal we received on the ship was so disgusting that it was difficult to eat. It was black and smelly, and the apple was smaller than a child’s fist. I was already distressed on the ship, even before we arrived in North Korea. As I started noticing the bleak conditions, I started to have questions. When we finally arrived in North Korea, there were welcoming crowds in front of the deck. Even by throwing things like tape, they welcomed us, but I could only see dark people. They were all wearing ripped shoes, and they reeked of this putrid smell. A member of the Central Party came to give us a congratulatory speech. I thought that he must have been an important official if he came to welcome us, but he was wearing baggy wool trousers. As a young child, I thought that it couldn’t be more tacky. After passing the welcoming crowd, we took a bus made in Czech, and we sat down at the table to eat candy and snacks, but my brother and I couldn’t eat a single piece of candy because they were so unpalatable. I knew right away from the first day in North Korea that I was deceived.
After the welcoming ceremony, we were temporarily assigned to an apartment that was called the Cheongjin Welcome Center. We spent around a week to 15 days there. There was a big map on the wall, and looking at it, we pointed to where we wanted to go, and we discussed with North Korean officials about where to be sent. Since my family lived in Shimonoseki in Japan, which is in the most southern part of the country where it didn’t even snow, we wanted to go somewhere that was warmer. However, when the official told us to go to Hoeryeong in the north, my father said we couldn’t go. He went back to the room and consulted with my mother for a while, and then came out. In fact, our family, like anyone else, wanted to go to Pyeongyang. Eventually, we were sent to Daedong-gu, which was next to Pyeongyang. Essentially, what I am trying to express is that we were in a repressive state, like how we were sent to wherever the Party decided. In North Korea, there was no such freedom as the freedom to learn, or the freedom of choosing where to live.
The Repatriation Ship Arriving in Cheongjin