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Victims of North Korean Repatriation Project Remembered at Ceremony and Forum in Japanese Port City of Niigata

GPF Japan, Action for Korea United Japan support revitalization project and future memorial.

Eiko Kawasaki, who defected from North Korea after 43 years,
returns to the Japanese port of Niigata where she departed in 1960.

Bodnam (“willow” in the Korean language) Street in the Japanese port city of Niigata was named in 1959 after 306 willows were donated and planted by Koreans living in Japan and by supporters of the North Korean Repatriation Project (NKRP), known as the “Paradise on Earth Campaign.”   

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung introduced the project to repatriate Koreans who resided in Japan to support the North Korean workforce as well as bring diplomatic recognition to the North in competition with South Korea. The first ship departed from Niigata port for North Korea on December 14, 1959. The project continued until 1984, with a total of 93,340 people, including some 1,800 Japanese wives and 6,800 Japanese citizens, taking up residence in North Korea.

Contrary to promises, the returnees were not permitted to return to Japan to see their families, and the claims of “paradise on earth” in North Korea were soon shattered.

Kawasaki speaks at a forum in remembrance of victims of
the  North Korean Repatriation Project.

Seventeen-year-old Eiko Kawasaki, a child of Korean parents who lived in Kyoto, was among those departing for North Korea from Niigata in 1960, leaving family members behind.  After 43 years of suffering in North Korea, she defected in 2003 and started a social activism campaign with other defectors who had departed from Niigata to protest North Korean repression and human rights violations. 

Kawasaki formed the NGO Modumoija (“Korea of All”) in 2014 and took the chair of Action for Korea United (AKU) in Japan in 2018.   During the sixtieth anniversary commemorative ceremony of the North Korea Repatriation Project in 2018, she determined to revitalize the historic Bodnam Street where many of 306 willow trees had died and been removed.  The “New Bodnam Association” began the renewal project in June 2021 in partnership with Modumoija, AKU Japan, and Global Peace Foundation Japan.

After 43 years of suffering in North Korea, Eiko Kawasaki defected in 2003 and started a campaign to protest North Korean repression and human rights violations. 

Supported by the Human Rights Watch Tokyo Office, the Attorney Group for Plaintiffs against North Korea for the Repatriation Project, and the One Korea Foundation, the New Bodnam Association Renewal Project convened an inaugural forum on December 13, 2021. Forum speakers recalled the tragic impact of the repatriation project on the lives of Koreans and Japanese who were deceived by false promises.

Global Peace Foundation Japan Chairman Aya Goto explained how the renewal project aimed to keep a record of the consequences of the North Korea Repatriation Project, and how new willows would be planted on the walkway along the street in remembrance of the human rights violations and freedoms lost to those repatriated.

“Bodnam Street can be linked to Otto Warmbier Way,” Mr. Goto said, explaining that the New York City Council planned to rename the street in front of the  Permanent Mission of North Korea to the United Nations to honor the American student who was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately died from abuse by North Korean authorities in 2017

Kenji Fukuda, attorney for Plaintiffs against North Korea for the
Repatriation Project addresses the forum.

Ms. Kawasaki also shared her bitter experience in North Korea, her motivation to start the Bodnam Street Renewal Project, and her vision to establish a history museum and monument to list all returnees’ names in the future.  

Hon. Atsuo Watanabe, a Niigata Prefectural Assembly Member, endorsed the renewal project as a meaningful way to emphasize the importance of human rights and freedom.  He said that when his father, the former Niigata city mayor, took steps to arrange the departure of Koreans from the port of Niigata to North Korea, he later regretted the unexpected consequences on the lives of those repatriated.

Other distinguished participants joined remotely and congratulated organizers for the renewal project launch. Among those sending video messages were Professor Toshio Takayanagi, Hosei University;  Ms. Yun-ju Kang, Legal Officer of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul; Dr. Suzanne Scholte, Chair of North Korea Freedom Coalition;  Ms. Kanae Doi, Japan Director of Human Rights Watch;  Mr. Chul-Hwan Kang, President of the North Korea Strategy Center;  Dr. Jai-poon Ryu, President of One Korea Foundation; Bong-sun Kang, Secretary General of Modumoija Korea; and  Attorney Atsushi Shiraki.

Remembering victims

On December 14, the North Korea Repatriation Project sixty-second Anniversary Memorial Ceremony was held at Niigata Port. Ms. Kawasaki threw flowers into the sea and shed tears in remembrance of those who suffered and died in North Korea, never returning to Japan. 

The North Korea Repatriation Project sixty-second Anniversary Memorial Ceremony at Niigata port.

Kenji Fukuda, attorney of Plaintiffs against North Korea for the Repatriation Project, pointed out that an existing memorial plate which Niigata prefecture set up in 2000 at Bodnam Street did not fully explain the impact of repatriation of more than 90,0000 people from the port.  Concluding the ceremony, drummer Takeshi Chiyozono and singer Poe Pak offered a performance for the repose of the victims of the repatriation program.

NHK Niigata, Broadcasting System of Niigata, TV Niigata, Nigata Nippo and AP News provided media coverage of the program.  

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