SEOUL — On a bright August morning in 1960, after two days of sailing from Japan, hundreds of passengers rushed on deck as someone shouted, “I see the fatherland!”
The ship pulled into Chongjin, a port city in North Korea, where a crowd of people waved paper flowers and sang welcome songs. But Lee Tae-kyung felt something dreadfully amiss in the “paradise” he had been promised.
“The people gathered were expressionless,” Mr. Lee recalled. “I was only a child of 8, but I knew we were in the wrong place.”
Mr. Lee’s and his family were among 93,000 people who migrated from Japan to North Korea from 1959 to 1984 under a repatriation program sponsored by both governments and their Red Cross societies. When they arrived, they saw destitute villages and people living in poverty, but were forced to stay. Some ended up in prison camps.
“We were told we were going to a ‘paradise on Earth,’” said Mr. Lee, 68. “Instead, we were taken to a hell and denied a most basic human right: the freedom to leave.”
Mr. Lee eventually fled North Korea after 46 years, reaching South Korea in 2009. He has since campaigned tirelessly to share the story of those 93,000 migrants, giving lectures, speaking at news conferences and writing a memoir about a painful, mostly forgotten chapter of history between Japan and Korea.
His work comes at a time of renewed interest in North Korean human rights violations, and when leaders in Japan and South Korea remain particularly sensitive about opening old wounds between the two countries.
“It was my mother who urged my father to take our family to the North,” Mr. Lee said. “And it was her endless source of regret until she died at age 74.”
The Lees were among two million Koreans who moved to Japan during Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Some went there looking for work, others were taken for forced labor in Japan’s World War II effort. Lacking citizenship and financial opportunities, most returned to Korea after the Japanese surrender.
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