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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Ex-bureaucrat to aid Koreans, Japan's returnees from North


Staff writer

When it comes to discussing North Korea, the public and media tend to focus on the Japanese kidnapped by Pyongyang's agents in the 1970s and 1980s, some of whom may still be alive.

News photo
Hidenori Sakanaka

But Hidenori Sakanaka, a former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, said ethnic Koreans living in Japan and Japanese spouses who have returned to Japan after fleeing North Korea are the less-visible victims of the reclusive regime.

On Monday, Sakanaka, who has long been working to improve the status of Korean residents in Japan and their descendants, will jointly launch with three Korean residents in Japan the nongovernmental organization Japan Aid Association for North Korean Returnees.

About 93,000 people migrated to North Korea between 1959 and 1984, encouraged by North Korean propaganda. Most were ethnic Koreans in Japan, but they also included some 6,800 Japanese married to North Koreans, as well as their children.

"They were talked into going to North Korea, believing it was a paradise," Sakanaka, who retired from the bureau in March, said in an interview earlier this week. "But what was awaiting them in the North was poverty, discrimination and persecution."

After decades in North Korea, some fled North, sought refuge at Japanese diplomatic missions in China and secretly returned to Japan.

But according to Sakanaka, about 80 of those people have had trouble blending into their new environment in Japan. They are unaware of how to seek support, for instance, for learning Japanese, finding jobs or getting public assistance.

As a result, they still suffer hardships even after returning to Japan, he said. The new NGO plans to interview returnees to find out what their problems are on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Sakanaka's concerns strike home in light of the highly publicized case of Fudeko Hirashima, the Japanese wife of a North Korean who took part in the resettlement program in 1959. Hirashima fled the harsh life of the North in 2003, only to return to Pyongyang last month after just two years back in Japan.

"Long live the great general, (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il!," she cried with arms raised at a news conference at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on April 18. The scene was widely reported by the Japanese media.

"She had been lonely (in Japan), without anyone with whom she could talk over her troubles," Sakanaka said. "We should not allow the tragedy that befell Ms. Hirashima to happen again."

Sakanaka also pointed out that the founding of the NGO is "epoch-making" in the sense that its three cofounders, who are residents of Japan whose ancestors came from what is now North Korea, are rising up against Pyongyang.

The North Korean regime often demands residents in Japan who have relatives in North Korea to remit cash to the impoverished country, effectively turning their family members into potential hostages, he said.

"It takes courage for them to act against their home country."



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