My family’s relative wealth was due not only to my grandparents’ social status but also to the fact that they had once lived and prospered in Japan. My grandmother was the first to exile herself there. She was born near the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, on the island of Cheju, famous for its windy weather, its horses, and the strong character of its women. To this day you see them on television wearing wetsuits and diving into the ocean in search of shellfish, while their men stay home minding the children.
On older maps, the island often appears under the name of Quellepart. The appellation originated with the arrival of a group of French missionaries, who asked everyone they saw en quelle partie—in which part—of Korea they had landed.1 Whether called Quellepart or Cheju, it’s the largest of the many islands scattered around the Korean coast, and in recent years it has developed into a major tourist site. In fact, it’s now the number one destination among South Korean newlyweds, who flock there on their honeymoons.
In the 1930s, though, life on the island was very difficult. Much of the population emigrated to Japan, to find work at the center of the colonial empire to which Korea had belonged since 1910.
Grandmother was the third daughter in a poor household, where a typical meal consisted of sweet potatoes, occasionally accompanied by fish. At age thirteen, she left the island for Japan. It seems she was an intelligent child. She told me with a laugh that when she was young her father always said, “Ah, if you’d been a boy, you really could have been somebody.”
She set out on her own, intending to find work in a textile factory in Kyoto. As it turned out, she came up an inch or so short. The factory owners weren’t allowed to hire anyone under the age of thirteen, and since girls never had any identification papers, factory owners had to judge age solely on the basis of height. A bit short for her age, my grandmother was told to come back after she had grown a little. Still, she didn’t want to go back to Korea. She begged in the streets for a time and slept in the factory dormitory, where a few workers from back home had taken her under their wing. She told me most of her food came from poulterers, who gave her the chicken heads their customers didn’t want. I have the impression that wasn’t the worst of it, either. She lived that way for a year, until she grew another inch or two and was hired by the factory. The work was hard, but she liked it. She was proud to earn her first wages and shortly repaid the girls who had helped her out. What little money was left over she sent back home to her family.
The Socialist movement was gaining ground in Japan, especially among teachers. So it is no surprise that Grandmother was first introduced to the ideas of socialism by her night school instructor. My grandmother was a bright student, attentive, curious, quick to learn. Several of her teachers grew attached to her and, through their discussions, tried to direct the young, upright girl toward socialism.
She joined the Japanese Communist Party at age twenty, which was around the same time she met her husband-to-be, who was, like her, a native of Cheju. The oldest of three children, he had set out for Japan to extricate himself from an ill-begotten marriage arranged by his parents. He was fifteen years old at the time, his wife about the same. The two young people never loved each other, and the marriage quickly proved a failure. Eventually my grandfather decided to run away, leaving his wife back home with his parents. According to Confucian tradition, which continues to hold sway in present-day Korea, a married woman belongs to her husband’s family and remains so, irrespective of divorce or separation. If she tries to return to her parents’ home, she will most likely be turned away.
My grandfather had a more auspicious landing in Japan than did my grandmother. Within a short time, he found work in a jeweler’s shop and learned gold plating. After quickly mastering the technique, he established his own shop to manufacture novelty jewelry. About that time he met my grandmother. The man who wanted to make a fortune and the woman who wanted to make revolution fell in love and married. My father was their first child. In 1934, the couple traveled back to Cheju and moved in with my grandfather’s family, a step that may shock the Western mindset, but that was not at all rare in Korea. The first wife had no choice but silently to endure the presence of the new wife under the same roof.
Their return was short-lived. My grandparents soon were on their way back to Japan. In the meantime, however, Grandmother made the best of her sojourn on Cheju. In her fervor she managed to expand substantially the number of Communist contacts and help organize numerous discussion groups and meetings on the island. For my grandfather, on the other hand, revolutionary ideas held no interest; it was only his love for my grandmother that allowed him to bear them at all. What he saw in his wife’s fascination with revolutionary change was something akin to his own passion for financial adventurism. In their own way, both were looking for the absolute. A quiet life, without fire, without plans, without struggle, was anathema to them. That’s why Grandfather was so in love with Grandmother. When she said “revolution,” he heard “passion,” and felt as though he’d never been closer to anyone. The spirit she brought to her undertaking mattered more to his besotted eyes than did the substance of her enterprise. Her enthusiasm for the Communist revolution—and her conviction—outweighed his lack of interest in the cause; he let her have her way, and he felt happy. Yet Grandfather never allowed money to cut him off from the plight of those less fortunate than he. Indeed, he gave so generously to the poor that he often teased his wife by saying that he did more for social justice today than communism could ever do tomorrow. He also sent a lot of money to his in-laws, who would otherwise have struggled on in crushing poverty.
Grandfather’s social and economic star was continually on the rise. When the Second World War broke out, he abandoned the novelty jewelry business for the more lucrative rice trade. Later he opened up a gaming room across from the Kyoto train station, an inspired idea that met with instant success. So great were the profits that Grandfather soon opened up a second casino, then a third, all of which continued to draw great crowds.
The number of Korean immigrants in Japan grew tremendously during the war. Within a few years, their numbers had swelled to 2 million. In addition to those who had come earlier, like my grandparents, hundreds of thousands of men and women were brought over during the war—often forcibly—to help offset labor shortages. Following the end of hostilities, many Koreans stayed on, but the exile community was deeply divided: one part supported the Sovietbacked North Korean administration, the other the Americanbacked administration in the South. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, emotions flared higher. Positions hardened. The Korean residents formed two ideologically rival associations. The one that favored South Korea called itself Mindan, the Democratic Association, while the association that supported the North took the name it still holds today, Chosen Soren (Japanese) or Chochongryon (Korean), the Federation of Korean Residents in Japan. The latter group held more sway among the exile community; not only was the South having trouble getting its economic motor started, its government had taken in many well-known reactionary errants and given refuge to former pro-Japanese collaborators. The North, by contrast, was posting consistent economic growth and demonstrating unwavering national loyalty.
My grandparents had no idea that North Korea’s leadership, like that of Europe’s popular democracies, had fallen under Moscow’s control and that the Communist leaders who once fought against foreign occupation were being systematically eliminated. Nor did they know that fabricated statistics made North Korea’s barely passable economy look like a magnificent success.
Grandfather followed his wife and the rest of the Korean Communists and joined the Chosen Soren, under whose banner were assembled the majority of the poorest Korean emigrants. My grandfather was a decidedly odd case. His massive fortune counted little compared to the influence of his powerful wife. Though not insensitive to the patriotism of his Chosen Soren comrades, what truly mattered to him was joining in my grandmother’s feverish activity. While continuing his private businesses, he agreed to direct the association’s economic department and even contribute money to it. The growth of Chosen Soren’s Kyoto branch, I learned, had a lot to do with his direct financial support.
In June 1949, the Koreans who previously had belonged to the Japanese Communist Party migrated en masse into the newly created Korean Worker’s Party, as the North Korean communist party was called. Like its counterparts all over the world, the KWP showed a formidable knack for creating associations with the allure of democracy and openness to the general public. There were women’s associations, movements for the defense of culture and peace, sports clubs, and various other groups which the Party could influence from the shadows. My grandmother was among the Party’s most active organizers and eventually became director for the Kyoto region. This responsibility came as a supplement to her ordinary commitments as a party member. Had it been humanly possible, I’m sure her relentless activism would have driven her to join even more associations.
Yet she somehow still found time to take charge of her children’s upbringing, which she did in a manner all her own. During their years in Kyoto, my grandparents lived in an opulent house located in a picturesque, well-to-do neighborhood dotted with vestiges of Japan’s historic past. The children had their own rooms. The kitchen, or rather kitchens, for there were more than one, were enormous, and paradox of paradoxes, their servants were Japanese—at a time when most domestic workers in Japan were Korean. These luxuries had my grandfather’s hand written all over them. Nothing frightened my grandmother more than the effect such comforts might have on her and her family. Was anything more noxious to one’s sense of justice than needless luxury? Were not her days in desperate poverty responsible for her understanding of the world? And what a demonstration of the Communist dialectic it had been: the negative turned positive, black misery sublimated into heightened consciousness, suffering into solidarity! “Luxury,” she once told me in reference to that period in her life, “is never a leaven to the desire for justice.”
And so Grandmother raised her kids as though they were poor. My father told me that he and his siblings often wore darned socks and threadbare clothes, even though their parents had enough money to buy them a new wardrobe several times over. Another anecdote confirms that the kids didn’t look like daddy’s boys and girls. A rather comic scene took place when, following Japanese custom, my father’s teacher was supposed to drop by the house for a parent-teacher conference. Since the teacher had never visited before, my father led the way. The closer they got to the house, the more astonished and incredulous the teacher became. “You must be lost,” said the teacher. “We’re going toward the rich neighborhood.” “No, no,” retorted my father. “It’s just around the corner.” The teacher continued to voice his astonishment, but there was no mistake, and the bewildered man soon found himself standing inside a beautiful house in Kyoto’s poshest neighborhood. I later saw the house in a home movie my father had shot and brought with him to the North. It was a luxurious threestory villa with a pool and a garden.
I have always been at a loss to understand why my grandparents sent their kids to ordinary Japanese schools rather than institutions run by the Chosen Soren. These bastions of the counterculture were favored by parents who wanted their children tapped into their Korean roots. Why my father, uncles, and aunts never attended these schools will forever remain a mystery.
The Chosen Soren education network remained strong throughout the 1960s and 1970s and comprised some 150 institutions spanning primary school to university. By the 1980s, however, the network had been substantially weakened by the integration of Japan’s 700,000 Korean residents into the mainstream culture, as well as by North Korea’s withering public image and the general lack of interest in becoming “a proud soldier of General Kim Il-sung.”
Though it has lost much of its power and glory, the Chosen Soren still exists. In May 1998, it held its eighteenth congress and reelected to its head the stalwart old leader Han Duk-su (of whom more later). The Chosen Soren still owns a few dozen companies and controls some fifteen news organizations. Their profits help buttress North Korea’s economy much the way money from Miami’s exile community helps to sustain Cuba. In 1998, nearly $80 million was reportedly transferred from Japan to North Korea.
After completing high school, my father enrolled at the University of Kyoto to pursue his great artistic passion for photography—despite being slated, as the eldest son, to replace his father in the family’s thriving casino business. The other children were excellent students who seemed destined for great success. My first aunt was a pharmacist; my first uncle, who attended the Waseida University of Tokyo, was a journalist; and the other siblings studied medicine and biology.
The leaders of the Chosen Soren were very keen on seeing people with advanced education return to North Korea, and they continually played up the homeland’s need for individuals with knowledge and abilities. In North Korea a person could serve the people and the state rather than Japan, that pawn of American imperialism. Yet the Chosen Soren did not limit itself to recruiting the Korean elite, but worked tirelessly for the repatriation of every class of Korean emigrant. The true mastermind behind the Chosen Soren’s campaign was the North Korean state. In the 1960s, under Kim Il-sung’s direction, it made enormous efforts to lure Korean emigrants by representing itself as the last hope for reunification and the defense of national identity: for South Korea was reactionary and a puppet of the United States.
Koreans never had an easy time integrating into Japanese life and often were targets of prejudice. The North Korean propaganda thus resonated with many in the diaspora, and thousands responded to Kim Il-sung’s call to return. Well-to-do Koreans such as my grandparents could expect to be wooed with an equal measure of ideological arguments and fantastical promises: there were managerial positions awaiting them, they were entitled to a beautiful home, they would have no material worries, and their children would be able to study in Moscow. Grandfather was rather against the idea, Grandmother all for it. Interminable conversations followed, from which my grandmother ultimately emerged victorious. No one was particularly surprised. And so it was that the family found itself heading for North Korea.