The Japanese wife of a North Korean returned to Japan last month after a harrowing journey through China. Her plight is raising awareness of thousands of other Japanese women who followed their spouses to the North decades ago in search of a better life, only to find that their dreams were an illusion.
Few details are known about the Japanese woman who returned to her homeland in January after more than 40 years in North Korea - but the facts that are available are chilling. What's even more worrying, aid workers say, is that thousands of other Japanese women who followed their North Korean husbands to their homeland are probably enduring similar hardships.
Kenkichi Nakadaira is a representative of the Tokyo-based refugee aid organization, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. "The Japanese woman who returned to Japan tells us that there are more wives in North Korea who are in a similar situation," he says. "She is urging us to help them."
The woman who returned, now 64 years old, went to live in the North with her husband in the 1950s. They went as part of a repatriation program established by the Kim Il Sung government, which was aimed at reviving the population after the Korean War.
At the time, there were many ethnic Koreans in Japan who had been forcibly brought here during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. About 93,000 Koreans voluntarily returned home between 1959 and 1985, bringing with them nearly 2,000 Japanese spouses and about 5,000 children. Many, including this woman's husband, were believers in a communist utopia, and confident that the North would offer a satisfying and stable existence in which food and jobs would be plentiful.
But ten years after arriving in the North, the recent returnee says, her husband was arrested for political crimes. In interviews with the Japanese media, she says she never heard from him again, and was forced to raise her two children single-handedly. She moved from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to a poor village near the Chinese border, and supported her family by gathering firewood and edible plants in the forest and selling them at a market.
The family was dirt poor, like countless others in North Korea. The woman says she and her children survived on a diet of potatoes and cornstarch, and could only afford rice on holidays.
Last November, with the help of two South Korean humanitarian workers, she crossed the border into China by wading barefoot across a river. This is a common route for North Korean refugees, who hope eventually to reach a third country that will grant them asylum, since China refuses to give them refugee status. Like tens of thousands of others fleeing North Korea, the woman said she moved around the Chinese countryside to evade the police, finding food and work where she could.
With the help of a Japanese aid group, she eventually wrote to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, which brokered a deal with Beijing. The woman arrived safely in Japan in late January.
Her case - a Japanese spouse returning home from North Korea - is the first that the Japanese government has publicly confirmed. However, Japanese officials speaking anonymously say the Foreign Ministry has secretly offered help and protection to dozens of other women in similar situations. The issue is highly sensitive because it could create diplomatic disputes with China and could worsen Tokyo's already tense ties with Pyongyang. The two have never established formal diplomatic relations, because of North Korea's abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s, and more recently because of Tokyo's opposition to Pyongyang's weapons programs.
Some Japanese aid groups are critical of the government, saying it should do more for the many Japanese women who remain in North Korea and may desperately want to return home.
Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama says the government is considering new laws and procedures that could help these women, but she stresses that for the time being, their cases can only be considered within the existing legal framework. The women who have made it back to Japan have all managed to flee via third countries, including Russia and Thailand in addition to China.
Mr. Nakadaira, the aid worker, says humanitarian groups are trying to assist those Japanese spouses who remain in North Korea and want to leave. "We receive requests from their relatives in Japan and we try to get money to the women still in North Korea so they can go to China," he says. "With the help of people there, they wait for a good opportunity to return Japan."
But the fate of thousands of these women is still unclear. A former North Korean spy, now based in Japan, has told the Japanese government that about 30-percent of the Japanese women who went to the North have died, from starvation, illness or other hardships. He says many perished in the mid-1990s, when North Korea's famine was at its worst.
He reports that one group of women who asked to visit their homeland were sent to a political prison camp by North Korea's Stalinist authorities, and that some were never released.
The Japanese wife who arrived in Japan last month was warmly welcomed, and her return was seen as a diplomatic triumph. At the same time, concerns are mounting for thousands of other Japanese women who may be trapped in the North against their will, without the knowledge or means to return home.