Grandfather agreed to the move, but he continued to drag his feet. The circumstances under which he ultimately arrived at his decision are rather comical, especially considering the political and economic stakes. Sometime in the past, Grandfather had become fast friends with the head yakusa, or boss, of the Kyoto mob. My grandfather was utterly enthralled by him and believed him to possess extraordinary intelligence, business acumen, courage, and, in a certain sense, honesty. My grandfather’s confidence in him was boundless. He and the yakusa were more than friends; they were like brothers, by which I infer they once took an oath of friendship. It is a common practice in the Far East, where two people become bound through an exchange of letters or of blood. What Europeans might consider a game for children is serious business for adults in that part of the world, and I’m sure that Grandfather and the local mafia boss truly considered theirs an oath for life. When time came for Grandfather to make up his mind, he naturally sought out this man’s advice, and it was this gangster who dispelled his last lingering doubts by telling him it was his duty to respond to the call of the fatherland, to help it flourish, and to change his life.
Thus was determined the fate of my family, and mine with it. Everyone—those, such as my Grandmother, who really wanted to leave and those, such as my father and most of his siblings, who were merely resigned to leaving—boarded the ship for Korea. Even my first uncle, who was dead set against moving, couldn’t get out of it. Some members of the extended family tried to rally behind him, and certain cousins even offered to take him in. He put up a good fight, but winning ultimately would have entailed breaking with his parents, something he was not ready to do. He tried to explain his reasons for wanting to stay and even offered to manage the family casinos while continuing his university studies. Grandfather refused: once resolved to leave, he wanted to make a clean break of it. For my uncle the idea of leaving the country where he had grown up and gone to school, where his parents had met and fallen in love, was unthinkable. At boarding time, he ran away to his cousins’ house. Grandmother had to go there and fetch him, and when he refused to obey her—a rare thing in those days—she slapped him and dragged him to the docks, arriving just as the ship was about to sail.
My uncle still had one option remaining: he could raise a protest before the Japanese authorities, claim that his parents were taking him against his will, and request the protection of the Japanese state. When it had come to the Japanese government’s attention that the Worker’s Party and its associations were pressing heads of households to depart with their entire families, it opened a small government office near the turnstile of the Korean-bound ships, where a bureaucrat and several members of the Red Cross interviewed departing passengers to verify that they were leaving of their own accord.
My uncle wavered until the last moment. A terrible struggle took place inside of him. On one side was his love for his parents and his wish to obey them, on the other, his attachment to his current life and his uncertainty about the life awaiting him abroad. Perhaps he also had some dark foreboding. Still undecided, his eyes crossed his mother’s fearsome, imperious gaze, and his choice seemed already made. The authorities asked him if he personally wanted to move to Korea, and he answered that, yes, he did. And there, too, was a destiny sealed.
On the ship over, the long-awaited dream seemed actually to materialize. The family was treated with perfect solicitude, lodged in a luxury cabin and regaled with the finest meals. While the other returning patriots were treated like ordinary passengers, my family was catered to like Communist Party cadres—better yet, like a group headed to honor Kim Il-sung on his birthday. Grandmother told me that one of the ship’s passengers was Kim Yong-ghil, a Korean opera singer who had found fame and fortune in Japan. As the ship approached the Korean coast, he got up on the bridge, turned to the promised land, and sang “O Sole Mio,” causing emotions to swell among the passengers standing within earshot. The poor man. He was an artist who wanted to share his gifts with the people, but he wound up being condemned as a spy and sent to die in the Senghori hard-labor camp—reputedly one of North Korea’s harshest. When he first arrived in North Korea the regime welcomed him with great pomp, and Kim Il-sung even granted him the honor of a long handshake. In Japan, Kim Yong-ghil has gained legendary stature, having become a symbol of the tragedy undergone by so many Japanese residents who moved to North Korea. Call me hard-hearted, but I think the only thing Kim Yong-ghil symbolizes is foolishness.
His story—which is equally the story of my family and of all those who leapt so confidently into the maw of misfortune—mostly demonstrates the force of human illusion and its awesome power to render us utterly blind. I have since learned that at other latitudes and at other times, the same Communist powers created similar traps for making people believe and hope in illusions. This led to the misery of countless peoples: in France, in America, in Egypt, and perhaps most notably, in Armenia. Tens of thousands died there in 1947 under the spell of Stalin’s propaganda, which had painted the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia as the land of milk and honey. The Soviets allowed that much remained to be done and that everyone would have to roll up their sleeves, but it also promised that the ancestral culture and religion would be respected and that the newcomers would shortly see a new generation rise and flourish in social justice.
The Koreans who enthusiastically cast off from the port of Nikada on Japan’s western coast were like those Armenians who left from the Port of Marseilles fifteen years earlier, tossing loaves of good white bread, that had been distributed to them, to their relatives on shore. Several years later they were cursing themselves and anyone who had ever told them about that land of supposed plenty. They sent desperate appeals to France, were willing to do anything just to get out. But it was too late. It was just the same for the returning Korean patriots. They set off full of confidence and hope, often with Japanese spouses and children who had only known life in Japan, and they, too, were heading for a big fall, at the bottom of which they would find isolation, poverty, daily surveillance, and sometimes, the concentration camps.
At the end of a fifteen-hour voyage, my grandparents landed in Chongjin in northeastern Korea. My third uncle later told me about the family’s arrival: “It was like the city was dead—the strangest atmosphere. The people all looked so shabby and aimless in their wandering. There was a feeling of deep sadness in the air, and no movement betrayed the slightest hint of spontaneity.” My uncle was frightened by these shadows, who were so at odds with the earthly paradise he had been led to expect. A sense of dull terror lent new weight to the warnings his family had received prior to its departure. But what reason had they to heed the reactionaries’ drivel? My uncle downplayed one incident that later came back to him like a boomerang: when the passengers descended down to the docks, several Koreans, who had arrived from Japan a few weeks earlier, took advantage of the general mayhem of family reunions to whisper their astonishment at the new arrivals’ decision to immigrate.
One of them came up to my uncle. “What happened?” he asked. “We sent our friends and family letters warning people not to come! Why didn’t your family listen?” My uncle turned suddenly pale. My father stepped forward and answered in his place, asking the young man how long he’d been in the North. “A few months,” he answered, “but that’s long enough to understand.” My father insisted that the Chosen Soren had hidden nothing of the difficulties and challenges involved in building the country. “But it’s just propaganda,” responded his interlocutor. “You’re not going to build a new life here; your parents will be stripped of all their belongings, then left to die. You’ll soon find out what these North Korean Communists are all about.”
The furtive exchange cast a palpable chill. This wasn’t the sort of welcome my father and uncle had expected. Yet it was true that these detractors had only recently arrived. Big moves always take some adjustment; these people just hadn’t been there long enough. And why had that strange man come up to them afterward? Might they not have been provocateurs? Grandmother later pointed out that if their intention really was to get us to turn back, they certainly picked the wrong time and place to do it. “We were wearing rosecolored glasses when we arrived. Our faith in our new life was anchored so deep, had been cultivated for so long, that these grim warnings simply couldn’t touch us.” Besides that, it looked like the North Korea dream might still prove a reality: the receiving officials waited on the family hand and foot. While the other newly arriving immigrants were summarily routed off to various cities around the country, my family received the sort of attention generally reserved for Party cadres. Grandfather had brought his car over on the ship. It was a late model Volvo—probably the only one of its kind in all North Korea. The officials suggested the family drive the Volvo to Pyongyang while a second, government, car followed with the family’s luggage. The authorities trusted them and tried to make their arrival as pleasant and agreeable as possible.
The family spent their first few weeks in a shabby temporary apartment before being moved, as promised, into a beautiful new house in the capital, not far from the central train station and very close to the Soviet embassy. Despite the relative prosperity of Pyongyang and the magnificence of the countryside, despite Pyongyang’s cleanliness and the majesty of its monuments, a feeling of malaise soon set in. With every passing day, the family felt more forgotten. There were no official visits, no warm welcomes from the new neighbors, no updates from the central bureaucracy, which claimed always to be awaiting further instructions from on high.
They were a long way from the brotherly relations advertised by the propagandists in Kyoto; a long way, too, from the collective effort the country needed—the effort that was supposed to be paved with difficulties and sacrifices but also with enthusiasm and brotherhood. The family felt like it was missing some of the pieces it needed to make sense of the situation, but no one was eager to help fill in the blanks. I’m sure it wasn’t long before they began fearing they had made a mistake. Their apprehensions could only deepen before the ubiquitous propaganda, the food shortages, and the incompetence of an ultra-hierarchical bureaucracy incapable of addressing even the most basic problems of everyday life: how to get food, how to find an electrician, a hairdresser, a doctor. Why was it so difficult to get eight gallons of gas? Why were the neighborhood’s Party representatives nowhere to be found? Why was the family left with nothing to do when it wanted to make itself useful? Nothing corresponded to their expectations. Among the children, none wanted to be the first to confess the feeling they all shared: the feeling that maybe, just maybe, their parents had led them down a bad road.
Since everyone was being kept waiting—the children for their admittance to the university and my grandparents for their prospective jobs—Grandfather decided the family should get to know the country a bit better. Making the best of a difficult situation, he took the whole family out for long meandering drives in the Volvo. It was during these vacations that the family first felt the grip of government surveillance. They didn’t get far before members of the People’s Security Force, the political police, let my grandfather understand that in North Korea outings were not undertaken without authorization. My grandfather and uncles were indignant at the admonition, which they saw as a manifestation of the country’s idiotic bureaucracy.
At long last my grandmother was summoned to appear before officials of the Union of Korean Democratic Women, an association that the Worker’s Party controlled every bit as tightly as it did the Chosen Soren. Grandmother was awarded the vice-presidency of the association’s Pyongyang section. Later she was also elected deputy to the People’s Supreme Assembly, a purely honorific position which nevertheless made her very proud, as did the three medals the government subsequently awarded her. Grandfather’s appointment, when it finally came, was also to his liking. He was named vice-president of the Office for the Management of Commercial Affairs, the agency responsible, among other things, for managing the flow of foodstuffs into the capital. It was this position that accounted for our surfeit of select foods and the frequent honorific visits by interested officials.
My mother was also born to a family of Koreans residing in Japan. My maternal grandfather, a native of the southern city of Taegu, had worked as an undercover operative of the Pyongyang regime. One day he was arrested by the Japanese police and died in custody. The North Korean government subsequently named him an official hero of the revolution and awarded his survivors the title of heroic family. Who would not wish to return to a country where one’s husband was a hero? My maternal grandmother, her five daughters in tow, thus left Japan without a moment’s hesitation, arriving in North Korea shortly after my paternal grandparents. The six women settled in Nampo, a large port city on the western coast. While the rest of the family stayed in Nampo, my mother and her youngest sister moved to Pyongyang to study economics and medicine, respectively. All five sisters were soon married off through the agency of a matchmaker, as was customary at the time. Still today, a fourth of the marriages in South Korea and half of those in supposedly revolutionary North Korea are arranged with little, if any, consultation with the spouses-to-be. This was how my mother and father met and married in 1967.
By the time I was born, my family—by that I mean the part of the family that lived under the same roof: my paternal grandparents, my mother and father, and my third uncle—had grown accustomed to life in North Korea. It had more than its share of daily dissatisfactions, but thanks to my grandparents’ jobs and the packages that kept arriving from friends and family back in Japan, it was not without its material comforts. Friends and playmates always wanted to come to my house, because they knew they would get cold cuts, sweets, and desserts. Yet my grandfather’s position was also the cause of constant worry, and it eventually cost him his life. He was a businessman who had learned how to get things done under a free market system. When faced with the muddle of North Korean bureaucracy, he tended to let his frustration show, which in retrospect was not too wise. Though he only ever criticized the country’s excellent political and economic methods “for the sake of improving and strengthening the country,” his desire for reform inevitably collided with his “comrades’” lapidary work routines. He had constantly to endure their animosity, which since he refused to keep quiet, only grew. Despite all the honors and benefits that sprang from my grandparents’ positions, North Korean life was not meeting the family’s expectations. The ideological shackles foisted on every North Korean, the sometimes discreet, sometimes indiscreet police surveillance weighed heavily on the children. They judged severely the poverty of this would-be paradise and the narrowness of its intellectual and artistic life. Eventually, something inside them gave way and the long-restrained accusations began to fly. “Why did you bring us here? You promised us we would have a new life. We’ve lost our freedom. We don’t even have the bare essentials you can find anywhere in Japan. We’re not happy here. And neither are you, only you don’t want to admit it.”
My grandparents were embarrassed, flustered. I think Grandfather was the first to realize he’d been had. The head of our family, whose stature alone was once enough to quell any thought of rebellion, looked everyday more defeated, was everyday less like the man his children had once dubbed “tiger face.” Gone was that sense of haughty self-assurance and, along with it, his sons’ fear of speaking their minds. Grandmother, on the other hand, pretending to still hope for an improvement in the situation, stalwartly countered the criticisms indirectly aimed at Kim Il-sung. Communist ideology had supplied her with an inexhaustible supply of readymade retorts, which she never hesitated to unleash upon her children: “What impatience! How can you expect a country to be rich a mere ten years after the terrible destruction wrought by the imperialist Americans? Everything needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. Have you forgotten that enemies still walk in the corridors of power? How can the dictatorship of the proletariat possibly loosen its grip? Have you no confidence in the awesome leader we are so privileged to follow?” Her kids shrugged their shoulders. They felt North Korea had received them not as compatriots but as foreigners—worse, as foreigners who were responsible for being so. The North Korean state was eager to collect the Japanese residents’ money, but it made no effort to dispel the mistrust many natives felt toward the newly arrived.
While the atmosphere never prevented my aunts and uncles from advancing brilliantly in their studies, there was no longer any mention of the prospect, once dangled before them, of going to Moscow. My first uncle became a journalist after studying philosophy at Kim Il-sung University; my second uncle earned his degree in gastroenterology from the department of medicine in Pyongyang; and my third uncle became a biologist after majoring in natural sciences at the University of Pyongsan. As for my aunts, one studied pharmacology, then did research for a pharmaceutical factory in Pyongyang. My second aunt studied medicine, then married a young man whose family—also emigrated from Japan—had recently been sent to the camps. When my grandmother learned of the deportation, she acted quickly to try to extricate her daughter from this reactionary milieu. Since her daughter was pregnant, she urged her to get an abortion and generally did everything in her power to cause a rift in the marriage. Her efforts were unsuccessful, however, and the couple stayed together. Later, when it came our turn to be arrested, Grandmother underwent the added humiliation of finding herself face to face with these reactionaries. As for my father, who had studied photography in Japan, he climbed his way to the head of Pyongyang’s biggest studio, the Ongnyu—or “Clear Water”—Photo Shop. As a semiofficial state photographer, he spent much of his time shooting public ceremonies and printing portraits of Party leaders.
All this might be thought an indication of the family’s integration and success, but that’s not the way it felt. The family’s bitterness ran deep. My father and his siblings knew that, even if they wanted to, their parents couldn’t officially request to return to Japan. Doing so could even be dangerous. Their unhappy decision to move to North Korea was irreversible, and they all thought of themselves as prisoners. At a certain point, my first uncle stopped raising the issue with his parents. That big man, who was once so outgoing and full of life, became more taciturn and morose by the day. My second uncle, who was more interested in comic books than official literature, began to drink heavily—another manner of expressing oneself without saying a word. Only my third uncle managed to keep his spirits high. His passion for botany and biology was strong enough to make him overlook political reality. He collected plants and insects, and his display boards were even catalogued in the museum. It’s ironic that he was the only one of my uncles to be sent to the camps. Unlike his two brothers, who had married and moved out of the house, he continued to live with his parents, and so suffered the family’s fate.
Growing up, I was never aware of my uncles’ disaffection with Kim Il-sung: I was too young to imagine such a thing was possible. Looking back now, their transformation seems telling: the silence of one, the alcoholism of the other, my father’s sudden obsession with music. They were each running away from reality, avoiding the words that might indict the political system or, worse yet, the parents who had brought them to live in it. My father was learning all the popular international songs by heart. He knew “Nathalie” and “La Paloma.” To our great joy, he also sang us the famous “O Sole Mio.” I now realize this was his way of escaping the military marching music and the glory hymns to Kim Il-sung.
I mentioned that he had been married to a woman whose family also had returned from Japan. Many marriages took place within this immigrant community, which proves just how difficult integrating into Korean society really was. The former Japanese residents, especially the young ones, had grown up in a different culture. This made communication with North Koreans difficult. Neighbors and security agents never let slip an opportunity to remind them that they were no longer in Japan, that they should express less originality, that they should show more respect for the laws.
Having been exposed to the wider world, my parents, like most former Japanese residents, felt superior to the people who never left North Korea. Their payback was being viewed as strangers. The old enmity between Korea and Japan also played against us. To many people, my family’s former immigration to Japan seemed more important than its decision to come back. The family’s material advantages were also the cause of barely veiled jealousy. As part of the next generation, I always felt profoundly and unequivocally Korean—indeed, North Korean. Yet, even as a young child, I sensed the chasm that separated my parents from their neighbors. My mother’s accent, which bore traces of her years in Japan, was the cause of constant laughter among my friends. Every time she got home from work and called me back inside, they would mimic her voice, making me blush with embarrassment. Finally I asked her not to do it anymore. I think I hurt her feelings, but she didn’t say anything, and from then on, whenever she wanted me to come home, she walked over to where I was playing and gave me a little tap on the shoulder.
To put it simply, the repatriated Koreans didn’t get on with the others, just as the Armenians from France and America didn’t fit in with their Soviet kinsmen. Though growing sulkier by the day, Grandfather did rattle the chains occasionally. Supplied with the necessary paperwork, he sometimes got out the Volvo and took us on trips around the countryside. That’s how we wound up visiting the famous tourist destination of Mount Kumgang, lately in the news because of tour groups brought there by a South Korean travel company, Hyndai, which pays the Pyongyang government millions of dollars in royalties. At the time, driving to Mount Kumgang in a car so emblematic of capitalist ostentation might have been seen as a provocation. We were verging on counterrevolutionary action! Yet the police seemed not to notice and gave us what authorizations we needed without much hassle, a solicitude due at least in part to the generous sums my grandfather dispersed among the Security Force and the state.
Later the authorizations became more difficult to come by. Then the police began suggesting my grandfather should voluntarily bequeath his cherished Volvo to the government. The suggestions became recommendations, the recommendations an order. At last my grandfather had to cede his Volvo, most likely to some wellplaced police or government official who wanted a nice car in which to strut about town. As the family’s situation worsened, Japan became an ever-expanding reservoir of idealized memories, nostalgic images, favorable dispositions. My family was once again a family of uprooted emigrants. That feeling of nostalgia is still in the family, but with every generation its object continues to shift. My grandfather lived in Japan full of longing for his native Cheju Island. My father lived in North Korea and was nostalgic for Japan. And me, I sit recalling my life’s story in Seoul, gnawed at by the Pyongyang of my youth.