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North Korean Defectors Sue in Japan, Alleging Rights Abuses

Eiko Kawasaki, a Korean born in Japan, speaks during an interview in Tokyo, Aug. 24, 2018.
Eiko Kawasaki, a Korean born in Japan, speaks during an interview in Tokyo, Aug. 24, 2018.

She was one of the more than 90,000 Koreans and their relatives in Japan who went to North Korea decades ago seeking what the country promised: "paradise on earth."

As North and South Korea make reconciliatory gestures and hundreds of war-separated relatives are reunited, Eiko Kawasaki and others like her feel forgotten.

Kawasaki, 76, who was born in Japan and lived for 43 years in North Korea before defecting, has not seen her children, still in North Korea, for years.

She and four other defectors filed a lawsuit against North Korea's government this week in Tokyo District Court, demanding 500 million yen, or about $5 million, in damages for human rights violations.

"Hardly anyone knows what happened," Kawasaki told The Associated Press on Friday in an interview at a Tokyo coffee shop. "Everyone is stunned to hear it."

Kawasaki is determined to keep telling her story to send the message Koreans living abroad must unite in a first step toward reunification.

Kawasaki was born in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, the eldest daughter of a Korean laborer.

In the years before and during World War II, imperialist Japan colonized Korea and brought Koreans, many forcibly, to work in Japan. About 450,000 ethnic Koreans live in Japan, including third- and fourth-generation descendants of those laborers.

Kawasaki was 17 when she signed up for the repatriation program, which began in the 1950s and was backed by an aggressive campaign in Korean communities in Japan for people to take ships to go live in North Korea.

Although she exceled in school, her family was poor. All she wanted was to continue her education. North Korea promised a scholarship.

Like many others, she realized she had been duped as soon as she landed. The port was shabby, everyone was terribly thin, and children wore rags.

"You cannot express your opinion at all," she said, adding that everyone lived in fear, even of getting killed for saying the wrong thing. "You can't get out of there."

She became an engineer and married another engineer. He died, but they had five children, four of whom still live in North Korea. She defected in 2003, first to China and then to Japan in 2004, with the help of her younger brother.

Telling her story has been her life, going on a lecture circuit, including appealing to human rights organizations, and writing a book. She started her own group called Korea of All.

The lawsuit is her latest battle.

Kawasaki said she has great hopes for President Donald Trump's efforts on North Korea. She acknowledged she was a bit disappointed by his meeting with Kim Jong Un in June.

"I want him to stand firm," she said of Trump. "Only America can solve this problem."