The last ship to North Korea

Following the end of the Pacific War Japan lost its overseas empire. Tens of thousands of Koreans were left living on the Japanese home islands. Many were unhappy with their lot as casual labourers and wanted to return to Korea. However Korea was now represented by two governments and Koreans themselves had divided loyalties.

Koreans faced multiple forms of oppression in Japan and many Koreans living in Japan at the time looked towards the socialist DPRK. And over the course of several decades, from the late 1950s to the mid 80s thousands of Koreans and sometimes their Japanese spouses migrated to North Korea.

According to many survivor accounts when they got there they found a grey and impoverished country, unlike the glowing socialist realist leaflets distributed in Japan. Their passports were confiscated and they were not allowed to write or return home to Japan.

Worse was to come. Even though they they were initially treated with a degree of respect, being able to choose which towns and houses they lived in, as the dictator’s son Kim Jong Il gradually rose to authority in the 70s the incomers became a target for reprisals and many ended up in labour camps.

All things Japanese became popular in the 70s. The incomers brought money, cars and household appliances hithero unseen in North Korea. The cash remittances that migrants received from their families back in Japan were a big reason why the North Korean government let them come in the first place.

Because the migrants were not allowed to write home they were unable to warn their other relatives back in Japan of the horrors of north korea and therefore throughout the 60s 70s and 80s more continued to come until the situation in north korea became common knowledge.

Many Koreans in Japan, like Jiro Oshima keep in touch with relatives through annual visits. They take small gifts like candy and underwear. Or things his siblings can sell such as babywear, medicines and shoes. He has made the journey more than 12 times since the 1960s.

An estimated 322,000 ethnic Koreans live in Japan known as ‘Zainichi’. “For as long as I can remember it has been the dream of the Zainichi to see Korea reunified”. Jiro’s family migrated to Japan in 1934. He remembers classmates teasing ‘are Koreans human beings’. It gives a hint of the subhuman status of Koreans in Japan and why they wanted to test their fate in what they called their ‘ancestral homeland’ north korea. We are Koreans Mr Oshima recalled “its about blood’.

North Korea escapee Eiko Kawasaki maintains that the migrations were coereced. Orchestrated by the Japanese government as a form of ethnic cleansing. The Japanese government was worried about having hundreds of thousands of possibly hostile Koreans living in Japan. They cared little what fate would await them in north korea.

It was the 1960s and like millions of idealistic young people across the world she thought leftism was the future. So over the objections of her parents and four siblings she went to north korea where she married and became an industrial designer.

Their migration was also not uncontentious. There is footage of South Korean sympathising Koreans trying to block North Korean sympathisers from boarding ships with their wives and families.

This is a tragic story about people who thought they were going to build socialism in a new country but met with despotism. Familes such as the Wongs who although they had a relatively comfortable house in north korea with a private garden she said ‘the realisation sank in deeper each year that a terrible mistake had been made’.


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