Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Exodus to North Korea

"[The Japanese government] wishes to get rid of as many Koreans as possible and is not inclined to favour these comings and goings"
Inoue Masutaro, Japanese Red Cross Society

Taking the bus in from Nagasaki Airport to the city proper, I’ve never had much occasion to ponder the scenery. It’s a trip I’ve made many times, and the view is of a mixture very typical to that part of Japan: pointless and expensive ‘public works’ development rubbing up against ramshackle and inadequate housing, tiny patches of farmland dotted with small shrines, plenty of tunnels. My partner’s relatives live in Nagasaki city and so, passing through Omura on the way there, my mind is normally occupied with family thoughts.

Reading Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War changes all that. Now Omura - that hitherto uninteresting blur from a bus window - is charged for me with all sorts of historical resonance, none of it pleasant. That’s because Omura, which still houses a Migrant Detention Centre, was a notorious concentration camp used by the Japanese government for containing, mistreating, and, eventually, deporting Korean citizens, activists, and communists. Some were so desperate to leave that, in the 1950s, they signed appeals for attention in their own blood.

Exodus to North Korea tells an important story. Morris-Suzuki recounts the history of the close to 90 000 Koreans who were moved from Japan to North Korea from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. “Moved” is an ugly, bureaucratic word, but I can’t think of a better one to describe the complex process this book analyses. “Repatriated” won’t do, as most of the Koreans who moved to North Korea were originally from the south of the peninsula, and many others had been born in Japan and had lived their whole lives there. “Deported” sits even less easily, as this was a movement of voluntary, and willing, people. In covering the agonising complexity of their ‘move’, Morris-Suzuki generates insights into the mess and human disasters of the Cold War.

By all accounts, the vast majority of those who went were eager to go, and there were demonstrations of Koreans outside the Red Cross in Tokyo through the late 1950s demanding repatriation. From this historical distance, it is almost impossible to imagine how a group of people could want to live in North Korea, and the standard responses we have to hand would evoke brain-washing and ideological delusion and so on. There was, amongst some of those who moved, a great deal of ideological commitment, to be sure, and many had illusions that Kim Il-Sung’s state represented some form of socialism. But for many others their reasons for moving were more prosaic, and the more heart-breaking for that: poverty, discrimination, joblessness, despair. Anyway, compared to the South, from a perspective of economics and development alone, the North looked like the more dynamic society in the 1950s and 60s (for historical background see Kim Ha-Young’s important essays). One of the stories Morris-Suzuki tells is of a family who moved because they couldn’t get medical treatment in Japan for their seriously ill father. Another is of a family with an intelligent son whom they knew could never make his way amongst the racism of the Japanese education system. They’re stories that are easy to relate to imaginatively, even if their end result is so shocking.

Exodus to North Korea is so well-written, and so carefully constructed, that, drafting this appreciation, I kept wanting to write that it “read like a detective story.” But that would do a disservice to Morris-Suzuki’s own ethical project. I’ve illustrated this post with the kind of pictures we’re used to associating with North Korea: Exodus to North Korea, on the other hand, is full of pictures of ordinary people - couples, young children, families, groups - and the contrast between these images suggests some of what is so powerful about the book. In telling the story of ordinary people caught up in Cold War politics and power struggles, Morris-Suzuki restores to them some of the agency and dignity the forces of both ‘sides’ of that era had denied.

The layers of intrigue and manipulation surrounding this move are complex almost beyond belief. Many Koreans wanted to return home at the end of the war, of course, but many also had homes in Japan. Many must have felt torn between the two. These personal motivations mattered less, Morris-Suzuki shows, than the political ambitions of the ruling classes on both sides.

The Japanese government, Morris-Suzuki is able to show through her analysis of recently unclassified documents, had been, with the more-or-less tacit approval of the United States, wanting to organise some sort of mass deportation of the zainichi Korean population ever since the end of the war. Document after document quoted in Exodus to North Korea illustrates the deep racism of Japan’s ruling elites, and of their fantasy of the possibility that they might be able to achieve an ethnic cleansing of the country. Their dance of manipulation and collusion with the International Red Cross - and their creation of the ‘problem’ which required mass deportation - makes for sickening reading.

This isn’t a story which makes for easy Cold War moralising history for either side, though. If the Japanese government was motivated by its racist hatred of the victims of its colonial era, the ruling elite in North Korea were just as happy to manipulate the situation for their own political ends. Initially planning for the repatriation of a thousand of so, once the potential labour power of tens of thousands became more attractive the rhetoric and demands from the North changed. Throughout the story the main players - the Japanese and North Korean governments, the Red Cross, China, Russia, the United States - all used the existence of the Koreans in Japan as a chance to engage in their own games of rivalry. Morris-Suzuki writes that

Coexistence, it might be added, masked another sort of violence, too. In the interests of maintaining their own power, the powerful of both sides at times became in effect partners, tacitly collaborating in trampling on the rights of the powerless. (199)

This ‘parternship’, of course, led to unknown thousands of zainichi disappearing into North Korean prisons - or worse - as successive purges and attacks targeted outsiders.

In Japan, too, the results of the ‘partnership’ from above have been damaging to civil society and ordinary people.

Media-promoted panic, outrage and aggression about the issue of North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese nationals (admittedly a wrong that Kim’s government should right) has been used to promote a national historical forgetting: if the kidnapping of a dozen Japanese citizens is worthy of endless outrage and the most aggressive language against a neighbour state, what then of what was effectively the kidnapping of several hundred thousand Koreans during the colonial period? Informed historical writing needs to be read, progressive voices need to be heard.

More intriguing still, the ‘partnership’ of Japan and the North helped to reinforce the leadership of the least progressive groupings in the zainichi community. If bureaucratic fantasies that upwards of 60 000 Koreans in Japan were communists forever on the verge of rioting were wide of the mark, it is true that the 1950s saw activism within the community on a wide scale, an activism which was beginning to make links with left-wing organisations and thinkers in wider Japanese society. But the loyalists to the Stalinist regime, Chosen Soren / Chongryun (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), opposed activism within Japan in favour of a focus on the North. Their role in the repatriation, a role helped along in no small measure by Japan’s anti-Korean elite, helped cement their leadership over the community. Morris-Suzuki:

This dangerous liaison went far beyond the personal level. In their pursuit of the goal of repatriation, key elements of the Japanese establishment promoted actions that greatly strengthened the power of Chongryun.

Repatriation enormously increased the influence of Chongryun over Zainichi Koreans and enhanced its profile in Japanese society at large. It ultimately enabled the organisation to extend its control deep into the Korean community, operating as migration agency and de facto network of consulates combined. Since many of those who departed for North Korea entrusted the property they left behind in Japan to Chongryun, the scheme also generated huge inflows of wealth into the organisation’s coffers.

Chosen Soren / Chongryun is now one of the key hate figures of the Japanese right, one of the most loathed and reviled groups in the Japanese media and popular culture. That their hegemony was built with LDP and state backing is a rich irony indeed. It’s an irony which, among other things, makes me admire all the more the bravery and intellectual clarity of my friends in KEY, a youth group which organises Koreans in Japan regardless of ‘North’ or ‘South’ citizenship, and which works within Japan on anti-racist campaigning and activism.

I’ve offered only a slight précis of the rich historical reconstruction which goes on in this book. Exodus to North Korea tells its story in all the detail and with all the human dimensions that it deserves. Morris-Suzuki is a beautiful writer, with an ear for telling examples, whether human or bureaucratic, and her book gave me a new layer to my understanding of the Cold War and the tragedy of the Korean peninsula. Some of her research on the topic is online. You can also watch a short video on her research and, later this year, Cambridge University Press is publishing her new work, Borderline Japan.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

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