(256) Trip of a Lifetime to NK by Ethnic Koreans in Japan
By Andrei Lankov
By the late 1970s, an estimated 95,000 ethnic Koreans from Japan had moved to the North for good. Even though they did not realize this at the time, for them this was a trip of no return. Once in the North, they would never again be allowed to go overseas.
Initially, ethnic Koreans moved to the North with great enthusiasm. They believed it to be the ``Paradise on Earth'' in the most literal sense. They also wanted to escape the discrimination and everyday humiliation of their life in Japan. However, they soon discovered that the North was far from paradise. Many of them managed to smuggle back warning messages, and the number of would-be repatriates began to dwindle in the late 1960s.
For the North Korean authorities, the new arrivals created some problems, but in general they were seen as cattle. Their relatives who were lucky to stay in the capitalist hell of Japan were sending money to the North. Between 10 percent and 30 percent of each private transfer were appropriated as ``voluntary patriotic contributions,'' while the rest was largely spent by the recipients in the hard currency shops run by the government.
When repatriations ceased in 1980, they were replaced by the ``visitation of the motherland'' scheme arranged by the same pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents, better known as Ch'ongry?n. The visitation groups came to visit their relatives who had moved to the North earlier. They brought money and lavish presents, and they also provided a wonderful venue for propaganda exercises.
For decades, the arrival of such groups led to a well-prepared and well-rehearsed performance. Yi Su-ry?n, a former repatriate herself, recollects how inhabitants of her apartment had to prepare their neighbourhood for such a visit. Her apartment was somewhat special: it was inhabited only by repatriates. Every time the Japanese relatives were scheduled to arrive to visit one of the families, the entire neighbourhood spent days cleaning, painting, and fixing everything.
The chosen families were subjected to special ``education work'' conducted by the officials of the local party committee's United Front Department. The so-called ``6th section'' of this department deals with the treatment of the repatriates and their visitors. The agents of the Ministry of the Protection of State Security, the North Korean secret police, were also present at these education sessions.
Yi Su-ry?n recalls what she and her husband were told when in 1990 they were preparing for a visit from her mother-in-law. The daily sessions lasted for two weeks. The instructors reminded them that their duty was to explain to their guest how wonderful life in the North was, and how great indeed was the Great Leader. They were also instructed to tell the old lady that every night they had a dream of the Great Leader riding his white horse across the sky! They were instructed to relate this dream as soon as an opportunity arose.
Of course, nothing critical could be said about the North and everyday life. It should be presented as unspoiled happiness, and the ever-present police agent would see to this.
The officials delivered a new TV set to replace the broken one, and a new set of blankets. They did not over-invest, however: once the old lady left, they simply took the price of these replacements from the money she donated. Fair enough!
Apart from these private preparations, the visiting Koreans were entertained with lavish banquets and parties attended by the local cadres of all levels. They were treated with praises of the motherland's ``great achievements'' and, of course, solicited for more donations.
Nowadays, however, the old lavishness is greatly downscaled. Gone are the days of banquets and indoctrination sessions. The North Korean state is steadily loosing its grasp over the populace.
And what about the Great Leader riding the white horse across the sky? One day, the son obediently said to his visiting mother: ``Last night I saw the Great Leader riding a horse.'' However, the old lady simply did not get what he was talking about. She replied: ``I am not interested in riding horses, you'd rather tell me how much you get in your job?''
Indeed, many of these efforts were wasted. Quite often, the Japanese visitors, completely unaccustomed to the North Korean idiom and tradition, simply failed to make sense of what they saw. The same was frequently the case with South Koreans as well.