A 17-year-old Aiko Kawasaki went aboard the ship leaving for North Korea from the harbor of Niigata, Japan. As her parents begged her in tears not to leave, she insisted on going and promised them that they would see each other a year later in “an earthly paradise”—North Korea.
Kawasaki told The Epoch Times that at the time, she was full of hope, believing that she would live a better life in North Korea than in Japan, without poverty and discrimination. However, as soon as she arrived at North Korea’s Chongjin Port, she immediately felt “deceived.” But it was too late.
She soon realized she had been fooled by the false advertising of the Chongryon (The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), an organization with close ties to North Korea, which had been promoted as a “heaven on earth.”
Since no diplomatic relations existed between the two states, the Chongryon has functioned as North Korea’s de facto embassy in Japan.
As a result, Kawasaki was stuck in the isolated country for 43 years, separated from her family in Japan.
In 2003, she finally escaped North Korea. However, since then, she has been missing her children and grandchildren, who are still in North Korea.
Kawasaki is now in her 80s. Despite gaining back her freedom, Kawasaki often does not sleep well. When days turn dark, she is always reminded of the miserable days she experienced in North Korea.
Kawasaki is a 2nd-generation Korean Japanese born in Kyoto, Japan. In 2014, she established the NGO group “Let’s Get Together,” a Japan-based nonprofit organization dedicated to North Korea’s human rights issues.
Kawasaki is actively engaged in various activities to have the world understand the realities of North Korea. She was one of three NK defectors invited to the UN Office in Geneva, Switzerland, to aid with investigating human rights violations in North Korea.
She is among the North Korean escapees and Korean Japanese that filed a petition for human rights remedies to the Japanese Bar Association. The petition demanded that the North Korean government, Japanese government, Chongryon, NK Red Cross, Japanese Red Cross, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, all of which were involved in the NK project of repatriation in the past, admit wrongdoing and reveal its details to the world. In addition, it asked them to guarantee free travel, at least to Japan, for the second and third generations of the people repatriated to North Korea.
Alone in North Korea at the Age of 17Kawasaki was doing well in school, but she was in a situation where she had to give up advancing to high school due to poverty within her family. One day, an executive from Chongryon visited her house and tried to persuade her to attend a Chongryon-established high school. She was offered the Kim Il-sung scholarship applicable only to Korean Japanese.
Kim Il-sung is the founder of North Korea, a dictator, and the grandfather of Kim Jong-un.
After agreeing, she passed the entrance exam of “Kyoto Korean Junior High-High School” with a top score and attended the school for free.
Decision to Board the Ship“The school teachers constantly taught us that North Korea was a paradise on earth, saying there were no taxes, free medical service, free housing, and free education. And students were used as tools of propaganda after school. They would visit the houses where Korean Japanese were living and say to them, ‘North Korea is heaven on earth, so we all should go to the country,’” Kawasaki said.
Kawasaki didn’t participate in propaganda activities. She was proud of herself for not engaging in those propaganda campaigns. She has seen others who had gotten seriously depressed or had even committed suicide after misleading people into moving to North Korea when knowing that their lives had become miserable.
“My father was from Gyeongsang Province, and my mother from Jeolla Province in Korea. Therefore, I had no reason to go to North Korea because I had no connection with it. However, as time passed, I became more curious about the country because I wondered how a socialist country could provide everything for free, even without collecting taxes. So I finally decided to see the country with my own eyes and experience it first hand,” Kawasaki explained, marking the beginning of her nightmare.
Arrival“I wasn’t afraid at all, no doubt, due to the brainwashing education. Since entering high school, I had been constantly brainwashed into believing North Korea was a paradise on earth. As a result, I wasn’t worried about anything when I decided to move to North Korea alone,” Kawasaki said.
However, Kawasaki’s father desperately tried to dissuade her from going. Her family eventually agreed that they’d meet up with her in North Korea after one year.
However, the reality of North Korea was utterly different from what she had heard in Japan.
“When people on the ship saw the land of North Korea from a distance, they poured out onto the deck and shed tears of joy. But when we actually reached the Chongjin Port, we began to murmur among ourselves. The scenes were completely different from what we had heard in Japan. Instantly, we knew that we were fooled.
The whole city was shrouded in darkness, and the residents who came to the port to welcome us with flowers in their hands kept singing. Their faces were dark and gaunt due to malnutrition. They didn’t even wear socks, and their grayish clothes were all tattered. Besides, nobody was wearing leather shoes. Most of them were wearing shoes made of cloth, with toes protruding from them. In short, they were starving beggars.
Somebody on the ship shouted in Japanese so that North Korean soldiers couldn’t understand, ‘Hey, students from the Korean high schools in Japan! Don’t get off the ship! Go back to Japan with this ship,’” Kawasaki described.
After learning the truth, to prevent her family from coming to North Korea, Kawasaki sent them a letter postponing the plan for them to join up with her.
Kawasaki suggested in the letter that they should wait until her younger brother—an elementary schooler at the time—gets married before they join up with her in North Korea.
Life in Japan Before North Korea“My family was poor, and Korean Japanese were discriminated against in Japan. It was before Japan entered a period of an economic boom. Therefore, Korean Japanese especially had a hard time living. Japanese people wouldn’t hire us, so only manual labor was available to us at the time,” Kawasaki said.
“After the liberation [of Korea] from Japan in 1945, over two million Korean Japanese living in Japan returned to Korea. But about 600,000 Korean Japanese chose to stay in Japan for one reason or another. In the 1960s, North Korea actively sought to bring as many Korean Japanese as possible from Japan to make up for the labor force shortage lost in the Korean War. Japanese economy at the time was still in bad shape after the loss of World War II. Therefore, the Japanese government at the time welcomed North Korea’s endeavor because they were having a hard time dealing with the issues of Korean Japanese in Japan.”
“As a result of the ‘Agreement on Repatriation of Korean Japanese’ reached by both countries, the North Korean project of repatriation called ‘A Large-scale Ethnic Movement from Capitalism to Socialism’ began in earnest. From 1959 to 1984, for 25 years, a total of 187 trips of ships from Niigata Port in Japan to Chongjin Port in North Korea were made. During that period, a total of 93,340 Korean Japanese migrated to North Korea. Among them were 6,800 Japanese, such as wives of those Korean Japanese. And ninety-eight percent of those Korean Japanese were from South Korea,” Kawasaki explained.
She gave the two main reasons why so many Korean Japanese, about 100,000, decided to go to North Korea.
First, they were deceived by the cunning propaganda of Chongryon, which described NK as “heaven on earth.”
Second, people hesitant about migrating to North Korea decided to do so when the International Committee of the Red Cross intervened in this project. She added that many people felt reassured because they thought they could trust such a reputable organization.
‘That place Was a Living Hell’“I supposed many people failed to adapt to North Korean life,” Kawasaki said.
“Many people suffered from various forms of mental disorder. And because the economic situation was awful, virtually everyone was sick in one form or another. On top of those hardships, we were branded as potential subversives and thus were under constant surveillance and discrimination because we were from Japan, a capitalist country.”
Snippets from the book provide graphic descriptions of the living conditions in North Korea, such that “it was common for starving children to chew bone char mixed with charcoal and clay, like chewing gum.”
“Windowless trains would always be full of passengers, so packed that one simply cannot make their way to the toilet. So they are forced to urinate and defecate on their seats.”
‘43 Years in Hell’“Students who attended high schools founded by Chongryon in Japan were allowed to attend North Korean high schools. I graduated from Hamhung College of Chemical Industry in Hamhung, North Korea, and worked at a machinery factory as an engineer. They would give me a smattering of money for my monthly wage, barely enough to survive. The rest of the pay was taken by the government. Then I knew what it meant to be a socialist country with no taxes,” Kawasaki said.
“In stark contrast to the teachings of Chongryon that said all forms of freedom were guaranteed in North Korea, the country had no freedom and human rights. It was a harsh, traumatic 43 years of life in North Korea.”
Kawasaki said that North Korean people had no real experience of freedom. Because they had only gone through feudalism of the Joseon Dynasty, followed by Japanese colonialism, and after it was communism which the Soviet Union forced via its puppet, Kim Il-sung.
The Escape“It was not too difficult to defect from North Korea because many people were going to and coming from China on a daily basis,” she said.
But Kawasaki added that she was lucky. She said she dressed herself up as a Japanese and paid double the price to a broker to cross the border between North Korea and China safely. After successfully arriving in China in March 2003, she moved to Japan the following year.
“I thought it was best to let the realities of North Korea be known to the outside world, especially to Japanese people, and then get their support and cooperation with my effort. Before I actually carried out my plan to escape from North Korea, I didn’t tell anyone about it. I decided I would go out to the free world first and then bring my children to Japan afterward.”
Kawasaki said she hadn’t heard anything from her family members in North Korea since she left.
“But I do know they are constantly monitored by the authorities ever since I left the country. I promised myself that I would bring my children to the free world when I defected, but now there’s no way I can do that. The only way to do that is to break down the North Korean regime. I will live to see the demise of the North Korean regime and see my family again,” she said.
Kawasaki said for the remainder of her life, she would like to see “the two Koreas reunified” and that the world would be much more peaceful if that happened.
‘Don’t Get Rosy Ideas About Communism’When asked about the takeaways from her experience, Kawasaki said she wanted to warn people not to believe in the ideals of communism and socialism and not to trust anything the regimes say.
“I want to say to them that they must wake up from the illusion that communist societies are egalitarian ones. As I know from my agonizing experience of the horrible realities in North Korea, a planned economy cannot be prosperous, and the ideals of communism and socialism cannot be realized. The North Korean regime of three Kims has only starved and killed people, never making them prosper.
“Similar to China, North Korea also has many cases of organ harvesting. And nobody knows what is happening to the prisoners locked in the concentration camps in North Korea. These savage practices cannot occur in human societies. I firmly believe that the world will be a genuinely peaceful place when communist regimes and communism itself disappear from the world,” Kawasaki stressed.