[KS] KSR 2008-01: _Exodus to North Korea: Shadows From Japan's Cold War_, by Tessa Morris-Suzuki

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Apr 2 16:24:41 EDT 2008

_Exodus to North Korea: Shadows From Japan's Cold War_, by Tessa 
Morris-Suzuki. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007. x + 291 
pages. ISBM-13: 978-0-7425-5442-9. Paperback $29.95.

Reviewed by Mark Caprio
Rikkyo University
caprio at rikkyo.ne.jp

I did not intend to read this book-at least not yet. But while 
searching for information regarding the 351 Koreans who repatriated 
to Soviet-occupied northern Korea just after liberation, I developed 
a sudden urge to look into the fates of 93,340 others who made the 
same journey more than a decade later, and thus turned to Exodus to 
North Korea. Within lay a tragic tale of dashed hopes and human 
betrayal that captivates like a John Grisham novel, while maintaining 
the dignity of a well-researched and rather provocative academic 
achievement. Here Tessa Morris-Suzuki breaks from conventional 
academic style by intermixing with her objective findings the 
subjective process that encouraged her research. Her style encourages 
me to be a bit less conventional-I have never introduced a book 
review by confessing how I came to read the book. Then again, not 
many scholars feel it necessary to share with their readers the "day, 
in fact, almost the hour," when their research topic takes over their 
life [26]. Indeed, a good part of Tessa-Morris' manuscript reads like 
a travel-research diary as she escorts us through Jeju Island, 
Geneva, Tokyo, Niigata, and Pyongyang.

Exodus from North Korea explodes this long-neglected issue into a 
major international affair that borders on scandal. The fact that 
Japan repatriated thousands of their Korean population to North Korea 
from the late 1950s is no secret. Those who have read the standard 
English compilations, or have dipped into the extensive 
Japanese-language literature, on zainichi (Japan-based) Koreans also 
know that a high percentage of this population supported Japan's 
left-wing organizations. They also know that political sentiment 
prevented them from returning to their ancestral home, which for the 
majority of Japan-based Koreans (97%) was in South Korea.[1] The 
formation of the Republic of Korea in 1948 rendered those who refused 
to register as "South Korean" stateless. They could not return to 
their ancestral hometowns and were generally not welcome in 
Japan. >From this, one might assume that these Koreans would welcome 
any gesture to assist their relocation to North Korea. The Japanese 
government had long sought ways to deport this population en masse. 
By soliciting the cooperation of the International Committee of the 
Red Cross (ICRC) from 1955, it sought to shroud this ambition with 
humanitarianism. Morris-Suzuki ponders, "After all the backstage 
political intrigue of the past four years [spent in preparation for 
their repatriation], could this still be a humanitarian project in 
any real sense of the term, or was humanitarianism about to be used 
as a cloak for yet more cyclical power politics on both sides of the 
Cold War debate?" (188). Exodus to North Korea reveals the political 
minefield into which the ICRC blindly stumbled when the politically 
neutral organization agreed to accept what became a highly 
politicized project.

This effort absorbed a number of state actors, each of whom 
participated with the intent of furthering personal agendas 
independent of the returnees' interests. The Japanese, who appended 
this initiative to one that sought ICRC assistance in gaining the 
repatriation of dozens of Japanese who remained in North Korea, 
wished to rid their country of a troublesome minority that was 
underemployed, living off dwindling welfare benefits, and viewed as 
too politically left-wing for their tastes. Japanese also saw in 
repatriation a means of pressuring the South Korean government into 
expediting negotiations toward normal diplomatic relations. North 
Korea envisioned these people replacing Chinese workers-formerly 
volunteer fighters in the Korean War-who had recently been 
repatriated. North Korea also saw in its cooperation a way to disrupt 
Japan and South Korea normalization talks, and possibly secure better 
ties with Japan (107-8). The Soviet Union, which provided the Koreans 
free transportation to North Korea, sought a way to "regain and 
strengthen their influence in the region" to undercut Chinese 
diplomatic gains made since the Korean War (200). The United States, 
determined to keep Japan in the "right camp," blessed Japan's 
initiative by its "silence" and its low-key, but no-nonsense, warning 
to the South Korean government that any attempt to interfere "with 
repatriation operations could lead to disastrous consequences to 
[South] Korea's relations with the Free World" (205).

South Korea, which of course did not recognize its northern 
counterpart, had threatened on a number of occasions to disrupt 
repatriation. It cajoled the British into rescinding its offer to 
provide transport for returning Koreans, and threatened to attack any 
ship that attempted to carry them to a North Korean port. The Soviet 
government felt it necessary to dispatch its navy to protect the 
ships sailing to North Korea. South Korea also incarcerated a cadre 
of Japanese hostages-fishermen who had strayed beyond the "Peace 
[Rhee] line," and increased the numbers of detainees (from 700 to 
over 900) as well as lengthening their detention periods, as Japan 
and North Korean negotiations developed. Morris-Suzuki suggests that 
from the mid-1950s South Korea saw value in using the detainees as 
bargaining chips in future negotiations with Japan (132-3).

Morris-Suzuki's analysis of the role played by the Japan-based 
Chongryun (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) is most 
interesting. Here the author accuses the Chongryun of deceiving its 
own members to achieve loftier agendas. The organization drew up 
lists of people to target for repatriation, and those to whom this 
"privilege" would be denied, based on North Korean and Chongryun 
needs (158). It stood to profit from their repatriation as many 
returnees entrusted the organization with the property they had to 
leave behind (159). The author also faults the organization's 
leadership with deception. These people, "who had better access to 
informationŠ[and were probably] aware of the gap between propaganda 
and reality," still encouraged a campaign that sent tens of thousands 
of their comrades to North Korea (138). The strong influence that the 
Chongryun held over its constituents made it rather unlikely that 
once selected a person would refuse to go. A number of returnees must 
have left Japan's shores questioning why, if North Korea was such a 
paradise, the organization's leaders weren't packing their bags as 

A number of critical misconceptions regularly appear in the 
discussions and negotiations conducted between ICRC officials and 
other interested parties. The most important misconception was that 
these people were returning to North Korea. ICRC representatives must 
have known that the state of North Korea was formed after many of 
these people migrated to Japan; they may not have known, however, 
that the vast majority of Japan's Korean population hailed from the 
southern half of the Korean peninsula and thus technically were not 
returning to their homeland. Their reasons for relocating to North 
Korea included ideological sentiment and a desire to escape dismal 
living conditions in Japan. The promise of free schooling (including 
university education) for their children, steady employment 
opportunity, and housing and food suggested to them that a better 
livelihood awaited them across the East Sea. To stateless Koreans, 
the promise of the citizenship denied to them by Japanese authorities 
provided an added attraction. To left-leaning Koreans detained in 
Japan's Omura Migrant Detention Center on immigration charges, 
transport to North Korea was far more desirable than the alternative 
choice-deportation to South Korea.

A second misconception involved the numbers of people wishing to 
repatriate. The ICRC stipulated that repatriation must be voluntary, 
and established a procedure to verify that each returnee was acting 
on his or her free will and volition. But it had no means of 
estimating just how many people this entailed. Its inquiries only 
confused the matter. The Japanese Red Cross informed the ICRC in 1956 
that, given the opportunity, as many as sixty thousand Koreans would 
accept passage to North Korea (33). At the time, the North Korean Red 
Cross informed the ICRC that they expected this number to be in the 
hundreds, perhaps even a few thousand (108). Although North Korea 
later revised this number upwards, this discrepancy in scale may 
account for the significantly better treatment early returnees 
enjoyed over those who followed. The North Korean government made 
promises of substantial assistance for Koreans that it either had no 
intention of keeping, or was simply incapable of providing once the 
numbers exceeded its capabilities.

Morris-Suzuki criticizes the ICRC as totally ill prepared to deal 
with these issues. It lacked both sufficient language capacity and 
basic knowledge to carry out the task in accordance with its 
standards. Its shortcomings were painfully evident in the screening 
process that the Japanese Red Cross eventually arranged to confirm 
the returnees' intentions. The ICRC originally insisted that its 
representatives be allowed to question the returnees without 
witnesses, and that all potential returnees be free to speak with the 
representatives (192). Language complications aside, these demands 
met with heavy resistance. North Korea, and by extension the 
Chongryun, lobbied for larger group meetings where returnees would 
confirm their intentions in unison, presumably to pressure people 
from defecting at the last minute. In the end a compromise of sorts 
was reached when the doors to "Special [interrogation] Rooms" were 
removed. The ICRC also insisted that the returnees be advised of 
their choices. The Japanese government's Repatriation Coordination 
Committee presented the ICRC with the English version of a booklet, 
titled A Guide for Mr. Returnee, that it had prepared for the 
returnees to inform them of their options. However, Morris-Suzuki 
questions the extent to which this booklet was available to the 
returnees. The ICRC ultimately accepted a compromised role that gave 
its representatives "little direct contact with the Korean returnees" 

And what about the returnees themselves? Unfortunately, 
Morris-Suzuki's access to direct information from candidates for 
repatriation is rather scant. The few Koreans that she contacted had 
either been denied passage at the onset or had later escaped from 
North Korea. Yi Yang-Soo, a student at the time, recalls the sendoff 
he received from his classmates only to have to return to Toyohashi 
after his ethnically Japanese mother-who was attempting to escape a 
violent marriage to a Korean who had no interest in going to North 
Korea-was denied passage. "Yamada Kumiko," who traveled with her 
Korean husband, slipped across the Chinese border in the early 1990s 
before crossing over to Japan, where she now resides. A number of 
stories surfaced from the archives. Morris-Suzuki learned of a Mr. 
Kang, who explained to one reporter the economic reasons for 
returning-he was a widower with three children and no food, and 
expressed the aspiration that things would be better in North Korea: 
"at least once we get there we'll get enough to eat" (6). The silent 
"Mr. Yoon," "torn by doubts whether to stay or leave," surfaced 
because he insisted on conducting his interview in writing rather 
than verbally to protect against his thoughts being misused by others 
(34). We join Morris-Suzuki in pondering the fate of the vast 
majority of this population. In this sense, Exodus to North Korea's 
focus is more on the well-documented history of their return to North 
Korea, than the evasive story of how they fared after their arrival 
in North Korea.[2]

A few questions do linger. Morris-Suzuki's treatment of the 
colonial-era status of Koreans in Japan is confusing. She writes that 
they "possessed Japanese nationality in terms of international law" 
but were "differentiated from 'ethnic Japanese' by the fact that 
their families were registered not in 'Japan proper' (naichi) but in 
[Korea]" (64). By this definition these people would not have been 
considered as Japanese nationals or citizens, and thus could not in 
April 1952 "lose their Japanese nationality," as she (and others) 
claim (65). A second concern regards the role of China in this 
affair. Was its interest in assisting Korean repatriation simply 
limited to the 14 million yen that the Chinese Red Cross contributed 
(182-3)? And finally, the book's dark atmosphere, and Morris-Suzuki's 
condemnation of the Chongryun leadership, suggests that all Koreans 
who crossed over to North Korea had made a mistake in doing so. 
Considering the advances that Japan's Korean community have made over 
the past few decades, and the desperate economic and social state of 
North Korea, this conclusion appears reasonable. More attention to 
the social, political, and economic situations that Japan-based 
Koreans faced in the 1950s and 60s would have offered readers better 
insight into the complex decision that confronted these people. These 
concerns aside, Exodus to North Korea is pathbreaking in its exposure 
of the hitherto hidden history of Korean mass migration to this 
unknown land. Morris-Suzuki fills an important gap in Japan-Korea 
relations, and offers the increasingly popular area of migration 
studies an interesting case study and research model. 

[1] Changsoo Lee and George De Vos, Koreans in Japan: Ethnic Conflict 
and Accommodation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981; 
Sonia Ryang, Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology, and Identity 
(Boulder, Co: Westview Press. 1997); Sonia Ryang, ed. Koreans in 
Japan: Critical Voices from the Margin (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 
2000); and John Lie and Sonia Ryang, eds., Diaspora Without Homeland: 
Being Korean in Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 
2008). There have been over 200 books written in Japanese on zainichi 

[2] Kang Chol-Hwan presents his story in his The Aquariums of 
Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, trans. Yair Reiner 
(New York: Basic Books, 2001). Miyazaki Manabu tells of his visit to 
North Korea to search for returnees in his Kita Chosen 1960 (Tokyo: 
Kawade, 2003). The author, a Japan-based Korean who sat on 
repatriation cooperative committees in Okayama, visited North Korea 
in 1960 to participate in the celebrations of the fifteenth 
anniversary of Korean liberation. Since the publication of Exodus to 
North Koreas, Han Soggyu's Nihon kara "Kita" ni kaetta hito no 
monogatari [The story of returnees to the "North" from Japan] (Tokyo: 
Shinkansha, 2007), a "novel based on actual stories" of returnees 
(jitsuwa shosetsu), has also appeared.

Caprio, Mark 2008
Review of _Exodus to North Korea: Shadows From Japan's Cold War_, by 
Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2007)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2008, no. 1
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr08-01.htm
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://koreanstudies.com/pipermail/koreanstudies_koreanstudies.com/attachments/20080403/e85c61e9/attachment-0001.html>

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list