During the Pacific War, millions of Koreans were moved around the Japanese Empire. Some were forcibly taken for their labour, others chose to move voluntarily, pursuing economic and other opportunities.
As a result, at the end of the war in 1945 a large number of Koreans were left in a defeated Japan. With the American occupation of Japan and the Korean Peninsula split into North and South, the question of their repatriation became increasingly complicated.
The devastation caused by the Korean War and the hardening of the Cold War meant that by 1955 over 600,000 Koreans remained in Japan. Many Koreans were on welfare, being discriminated against and not living in good conditions in Japan. They therefore wanted to be repatriated to their homeland.
Although the vast majority of the Koreans in Japan originated from South of the 38th parallel, between 1959 and 1984 93,340 Koreans, including 6,700 Japanese spouses and children, were repatriated to North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
This particular event is largely ignored when regarding the Cold War.
Why North Korea?
The Syngman Rhee regime of the Republic of Korea (ROK), in South Korea, was built upon strong anti-Japanese sentiments. During the 1950s, when the United States needed their two major East Asian allies to have close relations, the Republic of Korea was instead rather hostile.
Immediately following the Korean War, South Korea was economically behind the North. Rhee’s South Korean government showed a clear reluctance to receive repatriates from Japan. The options for the 600,000 Koreans left in Japan were therefore to remain there, or to go to North Korea. It was within this context that Japan and North Korea started secret negotiations.
Both Japan and North Korea were willing to proceed with a significant degree of collaboration despite the heightened tensions of the Cold War, which should have severely impacted their relations. Their cooperation was facilitated substantially by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Political and media organizations also backed the project, calling it a humanitarian measure.
A survey taken in 1946 found that 500,000 Koreans sought to return to South Korea, with only 10,000 opting for the North. These figures reflect the refugees’ point of origin, but World tensions helped to reverse these preferences. Cold War politics played out within the Korean community in Japan, with competing organisations creating propaganda.
It was a significant shift for Japan to either initiate or respond to North Korea when they were also trying to normalize relations with South Korea. A rigorous process was thus involved in getting a place on a ship borrowed from the Soviet Union, including interviews with the ICRC.
Response from the South
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea saw repatriation as a chance to improve relations with Japan. The Republic of Korea, however, did not accept the situation. The South Korean government did its best to prevent repatriations to the North.
A report claimed that a state of emergency had been declared in South Korea and that the Navy was on alert in case there was no other way to prevent the arrival of the repatriate ships in North Korea. It also added that UN soldiers had been commanded against participating in any action should something transpire. The president of the ICRC even warned that the issue threatened the entire political stability of the Far East.
Japan’s government was so alarmed that they tried to complete the return process as quickly as possible. Departures were sped up in an attempt to resolve the repatriation issue so that efforts could instead be focussed on mending the broken down relationship with South Korea. Fortunately for Japan, a regime change in the Republic of Korea in 1961 eased tensions.
The issue of repatriation became an indirect route of communication between North and South Korea. Propaganda spread internationally about the great experience of returnees in North Korea, and emphasised the unhappy experience of those who had visited South Korea.
The outcome of repatriations
The repatriation scheme was meant to lead to closer relations between North Korea and Japan, instead it ended up tinting relations for decades after and continues to cast a shadow over North East Asian relations.
After the normalization of relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965, repatriations did not stop, but significantly slowed down.
The central committee of the North Korean Red Cross stated in 1969 that repatriation had to continue as it showed that Koreans chose to return to a socialist country, rather than to stay in or return to a capitalist country. The memorandum claimed that Japanese militarists and the South Korean government were eager to foil repatriation attempts, and that the Japanese had been disruptive from the beginning.
In reality, however, the numbers applying to go to North Korea dropped sharply in the 1960s as knowledge of the poor economic conditions, social discrimination, and political repression faced by both Koreans and their Japanese spouses filtered back to Japan.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was not the paradise on earth that the propaganda had promised. Family members in Japan sent money to support their loved ones. The Japanese government had failed to publicise information that they had received, as early as 1960, that many returnees suffered as a result of North Korea’s harsh conditions.
Two-thirds of the Japanese people who migrated to North Korea with their Korean spouse or parents are estimated to have gone missing or have never been heard from. Of the returnees, about 200 defected from the North and resettled in Japan, while 300 to 400 are believed to have fled to the South.
Experts argue that because of this, the Japanese government would “surely prefer the whole incident to sink into oblivion.” The governments from North and South Korea also remain silent, and have aided in this issue being largely forgotten. The legacy within each country is ignored, with North Korea labelling the mass return as “the Great Return to the Fatherland” without commemorating it with much enthusiasm or pride.
The repatriation issue is very important when considering the Cold War in North East Asia. It came at a time when North Korea and South Korea were contesting each other’s legitimacy and trying to gain a foothold in Japan. Its effects were vast and had the potential to completely change the political structures and stability in East Asia.
The repatriation issue could have led to conflict between the USA’s key allies in the Far East while Communist China, North Korea, and the Soviet Union watched on.
In October 2017, Japanese scholars and journalists established a group to record the memories of those who resettled in North Korea. The group interviewed returnees who fled the North, and aims to publish a collection of their testimonies by the end of 2021.