Five people who say they were lured to North Korea decades ago as part of a resettlement programme have told a court in Japan they were promised a “paradise on earth” but were instead denied basic human rights.
The plaintiffs – four ethnic Korean residents of Japan and a Japanese woman who went to the North with her Korean husband and their daughter – are seeking 100m yen (£644,000) in damages from the regime of Kim Jong-un.
While no one believes Kim will pay compensation if ordered to do so, the case is expected to highlight the plight of tens of thousands of people – mainly Koreans and their Japanese spouses – who went to live in the North as part of a programme operated by the countries’ Red Cross societies and funded by Pyongyang.
“We don’t expect North Korea to accept a decision nor pay the damages,” Kenji Fukuda, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said at a recent briefing, adding, “but we hope that the Japanese government will be able to negotiate with North Korea” if the court rules in their favour.
In all, more than 90,000 ethnic Korean residents of Japan, most with family ties to the South, moved to North Korea between 1959 and 1984.
The five plaintiffs, who launched their action in 2018, are among the few people who took part in the programme to have escaped from the North and returned to Japan.
Most of the settlers were among hundreds of thousands of Koreans who had worked in mines and factories in Japan, many against their will, during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and 1,830 Japanese women who had married Korean men.
Koreans who remained in Japan after the war were stripped of their Japanese nationality and experienced discrimination in education, housing and employment.
The regime in Pyongyang, with the blessing of the Japanese government, had promised ethnic Koreans a new life in a socialist paradise, with free education and healthcare, and guaranteed jobs and housing.
Instead, they were forced to perform manual work and endure poor living conditions, according to a summary of the damages claim. They were also prevented from travelling to Japan to visit their parents and siblings.
In their claim to the Tokyo district court, the plaintiffs accused Pyongyang of “deceiving plaintiffs by false advertising to relocate to North Korea”, where “the enjoyment of human rights was generally impossible”.
The North Korean government, they added, had always intended to use them to address a labour shortage after the 1950-53 Korean war and to demonstrate the country’s political superiority to the world, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Japanese government and the Red Cross are not part of the case.
The defectors’ legal complaint also refers to their separation from family members still trapped in North Korea. “I don’t know what happened to my family. Maybe the coronavirus has hit them, maybe some of them have died of hunger,” Eiko Kawasaki, a 79-year-old plaintiff, said last month.
“None of us would have gone if we had known the truth about North Korea,” added Kawasaki, who lived there for 43 years until defecting in 2003, leaving behind her adult children.
Kanae Doi, the Japan director of Human Rights Watch, said Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, should “demand that Kim Jong-un allow those remaining in North Korea to return to Japan. Hundreds of thousands of victims of the ‘paradise on earth’ programme and their family members languishing in North Korea await that opportunity.
“The international community should recognise this decades-long atrocity and support this effort,” Doi wrote on the group’s website.