In Japan, North Korean fishing boats have come to be known as ghost ships.
In 2017, a total of 104 such vessels washed up on the west coast of Japan. Two years ago, 66 boats were found, according to the Japanese coast guard. Often, they would find the dead bodies of North Korean nationals inside, or nearby the boats.
Analysts say the increase in North Korean vessels washing ashore is a direct result of food shortages in North Korea, which in turn is the result of the tougher sanctions on North Korea in recent years.
These ghost ships, and the numerous missiles fired over Japanese territory by North Korea, don’t fit into the choreographed diplomacy performed by North and South Korea during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, with Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong sitting just meters away from South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
North Korean defectors living in Japan know better than to believe in the farce of ‘smile diplomacy,’ and the news stories about ghosts ships bring back painful memories of food shortages and hardship.
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I meet Eiko Kawasaki, 75, at a shopping center in a Tokyo suburb. It’s the type of place she didn’t know existed until she fled to Japan over a decade ago.
Kawasaki’s story reads like an Orwellian thriller. In 1942, she was born to Korean parents who arrived in Japan during its colonization of a then-united Korea. “Just after the war, Japan’s economy wasn’t doing well, and us zainichi [ethnic Koreans living in Japan] had the least favorable position in society,” she says.
After the Korean War split Korea in two, the northern leadership launched a repatriation campaign to lure over Koreans living in other Asian countries. “I only knew communism from my textbooks,” Kawasaki says. “Japan was poor at the time, so it seemed like an opportunity to get to know what communism was like first hand.” On top of that, the North Korean government promised that education, housing, healthcare, and even clothes would be free. “I went by myself, and my family would follow later.”
Kawasaki went by boat—about 93,000 zainichi in total would make the same journey—and vividly remembers arriving at the dock. “People screamed to us, telling that the promises of free food and healthcare were all lies. ‘Go back,’ they would shout. But we couldn’t.”
Worst of all was the fact that Kawasaki couldn’t return to Japan—the North Korean government wouldn’t allow her to do so. She was now a prisoner of the North Korean dictatorship.
Kawasaki decided to try to live a normal life, as best she could. She worked hard at school and earned a degree in engineering, landing a good job, marrying a North Korean man, and having five children.
That was when the true hardship began. “I couldn’t tell [my family] that life outside was so much better. They might have reported me to the government, talking bad about the government could have me end up in jail. And I didn’t know what my children were thinking, but I know they were brainwashed at school.”
Her children grow up distrusting everyone except the Party and their Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. “I didn’t dare to talk with them about my life in Japan, or my desire to leave North Korea. One day I realized I had to escape. My husband had already passed away, and I [would] rather die inside North Korea than live there any longer.”
She didn’t breathe a word to her children about her planned escape. “Doing so meant either risking betrayal, or making them accomplice to my crime. It was not a matter of trust, or lack thereof, but I had to anticipate the worst-case scenario.”
Only one of her five children has since made the same decision to defect from North Korea. “We are neighbors in Tokyo,” she says with a big smile. “I am worried about my other four children, though. Until November 2017 I haven’t been able to contact either of them for over a year. I was happy to receive a letter from them in November, knowing they’re doing all right.”
In a calm Tokyo neighborhood, I meet another North Korean woman, Mitsuko, with a Japanese NGO worker named Hiroshi Kato who provides support to female defectors for an organization named Life Funds for North Korean Refugees.
Mitsuko’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. The 47-year-old defected to Japan in 2011, and unlike Kawasaki, she soon realized that her escape had consequences for those she had to leave behind. “When I escaped, my brother-in-law was captured, tortured, and murdered in prison. Another brother-in-law lost his position as director of a big hospital.”
Next to Mitsuko, Kato nods his head. “You have to understand that the North Korean regime has an obsession to control its own people, that’s the system they live in. And it explains why she’s afraid, still now, in Japan.”
She anxiously scans her surroundings during our interview in a fast food restaurant. The paranoia she grew up with in North Korea never really disappeared. In North Korea, she explains, there is something called a three-generation rule. It means that an entire family can be punished if one of their kin commits a crime. Defection is considered one of the worst crimes.
As a child, Mitsuko always wondered what life outside of North Korea was like. “I dreamed of a life outside of North Korea,” she says. “I knew I was living an abnormal life. I don’t remember ever being happy there.” Her childhood friends were afraid to say anything negative about North Korea, and she soon learned that talking politics was a risky business. The only safe place to complain is her parents’ house. Her parents were privately critical of the regime. She assumed that other children grew up in similar circumstances, and only applauded the leadership to avoid getting into any trouble.
But when the Kim Jong-il died on a train in 2011, she was astonished by the reaction of her countrymen. “People went to the street in tears. Some people couldn’t eat anymore and died from starvation. Then I realized I had to do something; my people are brainwashed.”
Her husband began helping people in South Korea make contact with separated family members in the north, making Mitsuko an accomplice to the crime of treason. They both risked public execution if the government found out about her husband’s activities. The “three generations of punishment” rule means that an entire family can be punished for one family member’s act of treason. When she heard that North Korean intelligence was aware of his underground activity, they decided to defect.
Together with her husband and their only child, Mitsuko now lives in Tokyo, but not a day goes by that she doesn’t feel deep guilt towards the family members whom she left behind. Her years in North Korea have left a deep emotional scar, Mitsuko says.
Finally, how does Mitsuko feel about North Korea’s charm offensive at the Olympics? “The North Korean government will never stop their ambition to complete a missile capable of carrying a nuclear head so they can attack the US. There are US military bases here in Japan, and I have no doubt they will eventually try to hit those targets. We need to stop this cruel dictatorship.”