An historic court hearing is set to begin next week in Tokyo as five North Korean escapees in Japan seek compensation for human rights abuses they suffered in North Korea after joining a resettlement program based on the false premise that North Korea was a “Paradise on Earth.” The five plaintiffs sued the North Korean government in 2018 and have been awaiting a hearing ever since.
Between 1959 and 1984, approximately 93,000 ethnic Koreans (Zainichi) and Japanese migrated from Japan to North Korea under the so-called “repatriation program.” The North Korean government, mostly through Chongryon, a pro-Pyongyang organization based in Japan, proclaimed that North Korea was a “Paradise on Earth,” and “anything needed for life including housing, food, clothes are fully guaranteed.”
The plaintiffs maintain that the North Korean government intended to attract ethnic Koreans to meet its labor shortage and to support a campaign to demonstrate North Korea’s political superiority to the world by encouraging Zainichi, most of whom originally had roots in South Korea, to choose to relocate to North Korea. While program participants quickly realized the North Korean government’s promises were false, often upon arrival, the authorities prevented them from returning to Japan.
The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea found that authorities there committed crimes against humanity. The commission concluded that “[t]he gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” However, accountability has been an uphill battle and this case is one of the few attempts being made to bring justice to survivors of North Korea’s human rights abuses.
Japan’s new prime minister, Fumio Kishida, should find inspiration from the five courageous survivors and 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” program and their family members languishing in North Korea await that opportunity. The international community should recognize this decades-long atrocity and support this effort.