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As Trump, Kim meet, residents of Japan with Korean roots yearn for denuclearization

Kang Chongja speaks about her experience as an A-bomb survivor and shares her thoughts ahead of the U.S.-North Korea summit, in Kyoto's Minami Ward on May 15, 2018. (Mainichi)

With June 12 marking a historic summit between the United States and North Korea, two people in Japan with Korean roots have shared their thoughts about the summit and their hopes for denuclearization, while recounting their past hardship and expressing hope for peace.

Kang Chongja, 91, a Korean resident of Kyoto's Minami Ward, says she has two desires in connection with the summit. One is to see progress on the elimination of nuclear weapons -- which not only injured her but claimed the life of her husband soon after they had married. She also hopes it will become possible for her to see her younger sister, whom she has not heard from since her move to the north of the Korean Peninsula during World War II.

"The war took everything from me. We cannot allow there to be any more lives like mine," she said.

Kang came from the Korean Peninsula to Japan with her mother when she was 3 years old. At the beginning of 1945, she married a Korean man who was working at Hiroshima Gas Co. at the advice of her parents, and they lived together in Hiroshima, making ends meet in spite of a lack of food.

When the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Kang was helping tear down buildings to create fire breaks 1.8 kilometers from the hypocenter. Then at 8:15 a.m. there was a bright flash of light and a huge blast. When she came to, she was trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building and the skin on her right arm, burned from the heat, slipped away. She took refuge at the home of her relatives in the suburbs, and grated potato was used to soothe her wounds.

The remains of Kang's husband, who had been working near the hypocenter, were never located. In 2016, she learned that her husband's name was on a list of A-bomb victims at his workplace.

After the war, Kang temporarily returned to the Korean Peninsula, but because she had moved to Japan at such a young age, she was unable to understand Korean and she had no contacts she could rely on. Several months later she returned to Japan, and moved from one regional city to another, taking up live-in positions at sauna facilities and pachinko parlors.

"At the time, it was said that if you had been hit by the atomic bomb, you couldn't have children," she recalls. She gave up on remarrying and having children, and continued to hide the fact that she was an A-bomb survivor.

The state of confusion after the war and the division of the Korean Peninsula split her family apart. She now has no way of contacting her sister who moved to the northern area that is now part of North Korea, and she became alienated from her parents and other siblings.

It was only several years ago that Kang became able to talk in front of others about her experience in the atomic bombing and the breakup of her family. Other Korean residents in her generation with firsthand experience of the war passed away one after another, and Kang felt there was a need to tell others about her experiences.

Pak Poe, a Korean rock singer in Japan, is pictured in Yokohama on June 9, 2018. (Mainichi)

"The atomic bombing filled my life with sadness. We must never allow nuclear weapons," she says.

The mood of reconciliation between North and South Korea seen this year has revived thoughts deep within Kang's heart about her family.

"My younger sister might already be dead. But if there is a chance of me seeing her again even once, I want to do so, she said.

Another figure in Japan with Korean roots -- and an anti-nuclear and anti-war message -- is rock musician Pak Poe, 63. He is writing a song whose Korean title, "Neomu Joh-a," means "really good." He says he hopes the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be a good step toward denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Pak's father came to Japan from South Korea and his mother was Japanese. He was brought up in Shizuoka Prefecture. He took up his mother's surname, Hirose, but still suffered discrimination as a "Korean." He got into music when he was 10, and at the age of 24 made his musical debut as Yugo Hirose. The year after this, he paid a visit to South Korea, and was moved by the tone of folk songs, which he had first listened to with his father when he was young. Seeking a connection with his own life, he chose to use his father's name Pak, and fused traditional Korean music with rock, singing about social problems.

"Nuclear weapons are the pinnacle of human desire. They must not exist in the world," Pak said. He went to live in California for 10 years, and took part in anti-nuclear activities with natives there, which intensified his passion about the issue. Those people had their land taken away from them, and they were made to dig up uranium without being warned about radioactivity, and consequently suffered radiation exposure.

Inspired by the Hiroshima Panels, a set of painted folding panels by husband and wife artists Iri and Toshi Maruki, Pak sang his representative song "Hiroshima" near the remains of the Nevada nuclear test site, calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Pak has a cousin who lives in North Korea. After he returned to Japan, he participated in work to send rice to the North as the country struggled with food shortages, in the belief that residents and children there were blameless. He made his first trip to North Korea for a performance in 2001.

The singer closely watched the summit between North and South Korea in April this year, and said he was nearly brought to tears by the sight of the leaders of both countries hand in hand. He imagined how much his late father, who had yearned for the unification of North and South Korea, would have liked to have seen that moment.

"Japan, which deprived the Korean Peninsula of its language and took land, also bears responsibility for the split of North and South Korea. It should support unification more," he said.

Beyond the summit between Trump and Kim, Pak retains a desire for a world without nuclear weapons.

"It's strange for the United States to possess nuclear weapons while telling North Korea to do away with them," Pak said. "As an A-bombed country, Japan needs to approach the U.S. and create a world in which nuclear weapons are unnecessary.

In his new song, Pak has instilled hope for peace: "Heart to heart / open your heart / and speak. You'll surely understand each other."

"That's all you can do," Pak says.

(Japanese original by Hideto Okazaki and Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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