Japanese escapee sues North Korea for decades of misery


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North Korea escapee Hiroko Saito says she and 97,000 others were deceived into relocating to the North in the 1960s with promises of “paradise on Earth.” Instead, she suffered starvation, repression and loss.

Hiroko Saito was able to escape over the border into China, and ultimately return to Japan in 2001

It was only when she saw a malnourished boy, aged only 6 or 7, hailing the ship from the dockside that Hiroko Saito realized she had fallen for North Korea’s lies.

But with the ship carrying hundreds of returnees and their families from Japan already tying up alongside the wharf at Chongjin on that summer day in 1961, it was already too late.

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Saito was greeted by poverty-stricken residents and heavily armed soldiers. The situation soon worsened.

“We had been told we were going to paradise on Earth, that we would have our own apartment, jobs and that hospitals and schools were free,” said 80-year-old Saito. “They told us we did not need to take anything with us, that everything would be provided. They kept repeating that it was paradise.”

“Then we arrived and I saw the boy from the ship,” Saito told DW. “He only had a tattered old shirt and nothing on the lower half of his body. He looked thin and poor. It was at that moment that I knew. I knew we had been deceived.”

Escapees file lawsuit
Saito’s life over the following four decades in North Korea was a tale of hunger, repression, violence and death before she was finally able to escape over the border into China and, ultimately, return to Japan in 2001.

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Saito said she was deceived. She and five other escapees are now taking part in a lawsuit at the Tokyo District Court, due to rule on October 14, over the responsibility of the North Korean government for their suffering. And while the plaintiffs are demanding compensation from the North Korean regime, Saito says her campaign is not about the money.

“I was never interested in doing this for the money,” she insists. “There are many people who are still stuck in North Korea. They have no chance to leave and their lives are impossibly difficult. Even if only one of them is still alive, I want them to be able to return to Japan immediately.”

Saito’s husband and two of her three children died in the North. She says she has not been able to make contact with her last daughter for several years, and is uncertain whether she is still alive.

False promises
Saito’s experiences are similar to those of 97,000 ethnic Koreans who were living in Japan with their partners, many of whom were Japanese, but were convinced in the 1950s and 1960s to return to the North.

Representatives of Chongryun, the organization that represents North Korean residents of Japan, cajoled, pressured and promised that they would enjoy a far better standard of living if they returned to the homeland.

In documents submitted to the court, Saito, who now lives in the city of Yao, in Osaka Prefecture, detailed all that she endured.

Born in Fukui Prefecture in 1941, she married the son of immigrants from what had become North Korea after the end of World War II.

In 1961, Chongryun officials began to pressure her husband’s family to return to the North.

Shown pictures of spacious homes equipped with modern fittings and furniture, the family eventually relented on the understanding that they would be able to return to Japan in three years if they did not settle.

Hardship and horror in the North
Left in a large shed on the dock, the new arrivals were given no food for a full day before they were separated into smaller groups.

Saito’s family was placed on a train to the North Korean city of Hamhung and from there onto the city of Huishan — on the border with China.

Their accommodation was a single room with no running water, a bare lightbulb and a communal outdoor lavatory. There was no clothing or ample supplies of food as soon as the family arrived, which had been promised before they left Japan.

“Everything we had been told was a lie,” Saito said. “I was so disappointed and wondered how we would be able to eat and survive in the future.”

Little by little, the family had to sell off the items they had brought with them from Japan, including clothing and a bottle of precious whisky. Her family was given a ration of 1.6 kilograms of rice or maize per day. It was difficult to buy a single egg or fish, she said.

Saito’s husband was assigned a job in a company that made spectacles, while she struggled to obtain enough food to keep the family alive. Their lives were punctuated by public executions that the entire community was required to witness, and orders to take part in construction work for state projects.

Stealing to survive
Saito’s husband died of tuberculosis in April 1993, and the family had to resort to stealing the crops from farmers’ fields and chickens from state-run farms, aware of the punishments that awaited them if they were caught. Her daughter was eventually arrested for using the black market and smuggling,

Then the famine that the government euphemistically refers to as the “Arduous March,” was upon the nation.

As a result of chronic economic mismanagement, the collapse of the ration delivery system, and the cessation of assistance from foreign governments, as many as 3.5 million North Koreans died of starvation between 1994 and 1998.

“Everywhere we went, people were dying,” Saito said. “And we did not know when we would also become corpses. Every day, we were just hanging on a little longer. There was nothing to eat. In the market, people sat down and never stood up again. They died where they were.”

There were reports in her community of available meat supplies for the right price, but the rumor was that it was human flesh, she said.

Escape from North Korea
Eventually, Saito could stand no more and decided to take the immense risk of fleeing the North.

With the assistance of a broker, she crossed the frozen river that forms the frontier with China, and travelled on to the city of Yanji. There, she was introduced to a Japanese man who helped her to obtain a replacement Japanese birth certificate, which eventually enabled her to obtain a passport and return to Japan.

“I made up my mind to make as much money as possible and to send it to my daughter in North Korea, but I have not heard from her or the broker for a couple of years now,” Saito said. “I am very worried. I do not know what I should do.”

Kenji Fukuda is representing Saito and the other four defendants. The lawyer believes the court will rule in their favor and order Pyongyang to pay the 500 million yen ($4.55 million, €3.83 million) they are demanding in compensation. Getting the money out of the North may prove more difficult, he admits.

“The court is the only way to obtain a legally binding decision that can be used to compel the North Korean government to pay compensation and bring these people real justice,” he said.

“There will be further obstacles to collecting the compensation… But we also hope this case will bring political pressure to bear and force Pyongyang to permit those who are still in the North to leave,” he said.

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