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Escaping the Paradise on Earth (3)
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2020-05-25 11:03:23
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 Escaping the Paradise on Earth (3)


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. 


Longing for the days back in Japan


In North Korea, I went through the ‘Arduous March.’ I really went through all kinds of things. After living in Taedong County for around 10 years, and then in Hwanghae Province for another 10 years before heading to the army. At least among the Korean-Japanese repatriates in North Korea I was not classified as one of the lower songbun classes. Most of the Korean-Japanese repatriates had a low songbun, but not everyone was in the same songbun. In North Korea, residents were classified into 3 classes and 51 categories as their songbun classification. Among them, the lowest title was for the Hostile Class and Wavering Class — family members of North Korean defectors who left for South Korea. My family was a ‘family of the deceased’ as my uncle died as a member of the ‘Partisan’ in South Korea, so our songbun wasn’t very bad. The funny thing is that when I came here (South Korea), I realized that wasn’t the case. My uncle is buried in the Seoul National Cemetery, and he was actually shot dead in a skirmish against the ‘Partisan.’ It turned out that my father knew this fact, but he deliberately said that he was a member of the ‘Partisan.’ Fortunately, no one in North Korean found out, and so I was able to serve in the military and attend university. Traditionally, Korean-Japanese repatriates are banned from serving in the military, but we have been allowed to join the military from our generation. In this way, I was able to live even as a hospital director in North Korea; however, since the day I arrived in North Korea on the repatriation ship, I was full of regret and complaints, and I yearned for freedom. Although I went to North Korea at a young age, I unceasingly longed for the life of freedom in Japan. We weren’t affluent in Japan, but since we enjoyed freedom and experienced capitalism in Japan, how could we ever accept life in North Korea no matter how hard they tried to brainwash us with Kimilsungism or the history of the Revolution. The more they tried, the more I distinctly remembered the boons of life in Japan.



Deciding to defect from North Korea


Longing for freedom all my life, I pride myself in understanding the importance of freedom better than anyone. So, I helped a Korean-Japanese repatriate who was in a similar situation to defect from North Korea. Sadly, he was caught in 1982, and I don’t know whether he is alive. In fact, many Korean-Japanese repatriates failed to adjust initially to the new life in North Korea and decided to defect, but all failed. I waited patiently as I kept looking for opportunities. Then, as the ‘Arduous March’ began and mass defection resulted, I thought that this was my opportunity. At the time, I was living in North Hwanghae Province. In fact, it is an incredibly difficult decision to make to defect from North Korea from North Hwanghae Province. Most of the North Korean defectors in South Korea live near the border: Hyesan, Nusan, Ryanggang Province, Chongjin, etc. North Hwanghae Province is located below Pyeongyang. Therefore, the weight of the punishment varies for people caught fleeing North Korea by area. In the north, you can make an excuse saying you went to wash your face or briefly went to make some money, but that is impossible for those living in the more southern parts of the country. The fact that you went near the border is a clear signal you went with an immense determination to defect. You can think about it like the distance between Seoul and Busan. In North Korea, phone calls don’t work as well, there aren’t any highways like here, and it’s much more difficult to move and travel like here. It takes around a week to travel from Hwanghae Province to Hyesan, and you have to pack all the food you’re going to eat on the way. Thus, there wasn’t any information on the border in Hwanghae Province. The only place I could learn information about the border and the mass defection was the radio broadcasts. While living in the Hwanghae Province, I asked around and acquired a radio to learn more about the outside world. Ever since then, I kept listening to the radio broadcast; I listened to Freedom Asia Radio Broadcast a lot. Listening to the broadcast, I learned that there were lines of defectors, and a lot defected through the church. So, without any definite plan and with just an idea, I decided to defect from North Korea through a church. That was when I was 55 years old. ‘If I don’t go now, I can never see freedom. Whether I live or die, I am now old enough that I am not afraid of death.’ With this ‘do or die’ resolution, I defected. I believe there are over 30,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea, and they may have different reasons for defecting, but they were all determined to die. I only had one reason for defecting: a hope for freedom! 



Zainichi Repatriates in Desperate Longing for Freedom