Truth commission launches probe into N. Korea’s ‘paradise on Earth’ lies

Bomi Yoon

People wave North Korean flags before boarding ships bound for North Korea at the port of Niigata in Japan, in this file photo from December 1959. South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an independent investigative state body, has recently launched a probe into the case, an official and human rights activists told The Korea Times on Thursday. Courtesy of Kim Deog-young

Efforts to shed light on suffering of 100,000 victims gain traction after decades

By Jung Min-ho

South Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recently launched an investigation into North Korea’s resettlement program, under which nearly 100,000 people were tricked into moving there between 1959 and 1984.

According to an official from the commission and human rights activists on Thursday, the independent investigative state body is looking into North Korea’s rights abuses against more than 93,000 people, mainly ethnic Koreans living in Japan, who went there dreaming of a new life in a “socialist utopia” based on the lies of the regime.

This is the first investigation initiated by a governmental organization on that case. Activists representing more than 20 victims, who later escaped North Korea, and their families, said they submitted an official request for investigation in December 2022.

“Years of our efforts have not been in vain. We are deeply grateful for the decision,” Lee So-ra, a director of a Japanese NGO supporting the survivors, told The Korea Times. “I hope this investigation will help the South Korean public understand more about the rights violations caused by the resettlement program and, based on the outcome, will lead to proper measures for the victims.”

The revelation of the commission’s move comes after the Tokyo High Court’s verdict against the regime and Chongryon, a pro-North Korean group that played a major role in promoting the program in Japan. The appeals court ruled on Oct. 30 that Japan has jurisdiction over the case and found the North Korean government violated the four plaintiffs’ rights by enticing them with disinformation and then confining them within its territory.

All this means that the efforts to shed light on the sufferings of the victims are finally gaining traction, after being ignored by both Japanese and South Korean governments for decades, said Lee Ji-yoon, a program manager at the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO in Seoul.

“For too long, authorities in both South Korea and Japan shifted the blame onto the victims, who were deceived by the North Korean government,” Lee said.

The tragedy began following Korea’s independence from Japan and the subsequent 1950-53 Korean War. While their country was divided, ethnic Koreans in Japan lost their Japanese citizenship as a result of the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951.

When North Korea started to promote the resettlement program mainly targeting them — as it sought to fill a labor void after the war — many Koreans in Japan fell for its false promises of a “paradise on Earth,” where they would not have to pay for anything. But their illusions of communism were shattered by the brutal reality of life in North Korea as soon as they arrived, by which time it was too late to change their minds.

Yet there is little government information available about the victims’ personal details, the rights violations they suffered in North Korea and what the South Korean government did to stop the resettlement program. Rights groups said they rely mostly on public information from the Red Cross, one of the parties involved in the program.

Citing witnesses’ accounts, Lee said rights violations started the moment the ships departed from the port of Niigata in Japan.

“There was a case in which a teenage boy who said he wanted to return home to Japan was later separated from his parents over his ‘mental problem,’” she said. “Yet we still don’t have detailed data about what happened to them in North Korea.”

She said her group asked the commission to look deeper into each abuse case and publish a comprehensive report. For now, records from state departments and agencies are scattered and many of them remain confidential, she added.

“All this will require close collaboration with the government and activists in Japan as well as the Red Cross. I hope this fact-finding mission will become a starting point of the two countries’ cooperation for the common goal of improving human rights in North Korea,” she said.

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