A Korean Japanese family's bitter 'homecoming'

Ko Jong-mi can still see her mother lying on her deathbed in a shabby North Korean village.

"I'm sorry," the old woman said, her voice weak. "I'm the one who brought you to this life. Please, please forgive me."

Now 49, Ko long ago forgave her mother for becoming an unwitting victim of North Korea's covert Homecoming Project. Under the slogan "Let's go back to the fatherland!" the campaign persuaded more than 93,000 ethnic Koreans and their families living in Japan to emigrate to North Korea from 1959 to 1984.

A widow supporting her three children with work at an Osaka cardboard factory, Ko's mother fell prey to alleged North Korean operatives who told her about a "heaven on Earth" that provided free education and health benefits.

The recruiters, activists say, were members of the General Assn. of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chosen Soren, whose Tokyo headquarters acts as North Korea's unofficial embassy. Chosen Soren has denied any connection with the program.

It was 1963. Ko's mother had heard rumors that volunteers could leave after three years if they were unhappy. Because she knew of no returnees, she assumed that no one wanted to go back -- not that they weren't allowed to.

Ko recalls her mother repeating, "I never dreamed that they would never let us return."

Hoping for better benefits as a family with a combined five children, Ko's mother quickly married a Korean Japanese man and boarded the 111th Emigration Passenger Ship for North Korea. Ko was 2 years old.

Ko's family realized their mistake even before they arrived in the North Korean port of Chongjin.

"My mother said my 15-year-old stepbrother could feel that something wasn't right," Ko recalled. "When he asked to be sent back to Japan, guards took him away. Our family never had a dinner together in North Korea."

Five years later, Ko saw her stepbrother for the next and last time, on a family visit to the mental hospital where he'd been taken.

"There were dirty people with long hair kept in iron cages like in a zoo," she said, wiping away tears. "I hid behind my mother, but I could see them. Many crawled on their hands and feet like animals. All my life I've had to live with that image."

After that, her parents changed, Ko recalled. Her stepfather often brooded and her mother never again mentioned her stepson, who died in the asylum, still a young man.

Ko suffered her own despair.

She was often bullied at school, labeled a panjoppari, a slur meaning half-Japanese. Classmates ripped her Japanese-made clothes, considered too colorful compared with the drab military-style garb worn by most children.

The teacher lashed out at Ko, telling the class that her mind had been polluted in Japan.

"Homecoming members were the lowest rung of the ladder. We were like untouchables," Ko said, a reference to the lowest members of the caste system.

At age 10, she obsessed about killing herself. "But I decided that I couldn't do that to my mother," she said.

Kim Il Sung's communist government came to view many of the newcomers as potential spies, banishing them to concentration camps. They extorted money and goods from the prisoners' families in Japan and elsewhere to keep the immigrants alive and support the dictatorship.

The Ko family was banished to the border town of Sinuiju, across the Yalu River from the Chinese city of Dandong. Ko's stepfather worked his way up to a managerial position in a machinery factory.

Her parents sought ways to raise Ko's social standing and finally secured the 14-year-old a spot on the pingpong team at a local school.

She excelled at sports and competed nationally.

"I knew if I worked hard, I was equal to the others," she said. "It changed my life."

Ko entered a university and eventually became a professor there. She married and had two children. But life remained oppressive. Her parents aged prematurely; her stepfather was arrested and interrogated.

Finally, Ko received the order from officials that convinced her that she had to flee North Korea: to secretly dispose of the bodies of neighbors who died during the 1990s famine.

"I was dumping these bodies into the river at night and thinking, 'What is this country doing to us? I could end up like this one day.' "

By the end of World War II, 2 million ethnic Koreans lived in Japan -- from intellectuals and migrant workers who went voluntarily to those forcibly delivered there by the Imperial Japanese government during its rule over Korea.

Facing discrimination, many wanted to return home in the years that followed, but after the partition of Korea, they felt their allegiances divided. Chosen Soren propaganda books and posters circulated in Japan suggested that North Korea was their true homeland, describing it as "a place where laughs and songs flow like a poem through joyful labor and happy life."

But Ko eventually came to see North Korea as the big lie. Instead of the utopia her mother sought, all she knew was misery and famine.

Her life was spiraling downward. Her mother died in the early 1990s and her stepfather years later -- to the end both yearning for their lives back in Japan.

Then Ko's husband died and she soon lost her university job, banished to perform common labor in a nearby village.

"I was back to zero despite my parents' sacrifices," she said.

A decade ago, after Ko and her children were caught trying to defect, she was beaten so severely that she still remains on disability, unable to work.

In 2005, a second defection attempt succeeded, landing Ko and her children in Osaka. She was finally a free woman -- four decades after her family boarded their ship to the so-called promised land.

Her children are flourishing in Japan. Her son works as a deliveryman and her daughter is studying to become a doctor.

A slight woman with mournful eyes, Ko has worked to create a new life. She learned to speak Japanese and has made new friends. But she constantly rubs her neck and shoulders, soothing the dull pain that is the legacy of the beatings.

"The North Koreans broke my body," she said. "But they could not reach my soul."

In 2007, Ko was approached by human rights activists here who wanted to sue Chosen Soren for allegedly conspiring to send tens of thousands to North Korea. They wanted Ko to be their plaintiff.

"The defectors are so traumatized they are afraid to speak out," said Fumiaki Yamada, an Osaka University economics professor and member of the Society to Help Returnees to North Korea. "We needed someone to step forward."

Ko knew that family members who remained in North Korea could face retaliation. Yet after months of anguish, she became the first North Korean defector living in Japan to file suit against Chosen Soren.

When she signed the papers, she thought of her mother. "She lived her entire life in regret," she said. "I don't want any more regrets."

In November, a district judge in Osaka dismissed her case against Chosen Soren over a statute of limitations issue, ruling that she had been back in Japan too long to file a valid claim.

Recently, Ko went to the group's Tokyo offices and banged on the door. "You have to apologize," she demanded, "for what you have done to us."

Chosen Soren officials declined to discuss the issue in detail. "We had nothing to do with that," an officer said of the Homecoming Project.

Ko's lawyers have appealed the judge's decision. She also is pursuing ways to sue North Korea in international court.

Although Ko's mother has been dead for nearly two decades, Ko recalls their final talk and that heartbreaking apology.

"Mother, I have to thank you," a teary-eyed Ko recalled insisting. "You were always there for me. You helped me."

But her mother refused to forgive herself.

"No," she said, "I helped ruin you."

john.glionna@latimes.com

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