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Japan photojournalist's exhibit to show 'abandoned' A-bomb survivors living in North Korea

Li Gye Son, a Pyongyang resident who suffered from the Hiroshima atomic bombing, speaks about her mother, whom she has been unable to meet, in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 11, 2009, as seen in this image taken from documentary film "Hiroshima Pyongyang," which was provided by director Takashi Ito.

TOKYO -- Among the hundreds of thousands of individuals who survived the 1945 atomic bombings in Japan, there exists a group of people who crossed to North Korea after the war and have been left out of the Japanese government's support framework. An exhibit focusing on such abandoned hibakusha survivors, who are deserving of assistance, will be held in western Japan as the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombings approaches.

    Of the hibakusha who suffered from the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and later settled down overseas, the majority moved to South Korea, but there are also those with Japanese ancestry who moved to the United States and other countries, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. Medical expenses and health care allowances are granted to those who are given hibakusha health handbooks based on the Atomic Bomb Survivors' Assistance Act, and there has also been progress in support for traveling to Japan for treatment. As of the end of March 2021, there were reportedly around 2,785 individuals eligible for such assistance among A-bomb survivors living overseas.

    Li Bok Sun, an A-bomb survivor who was born in 1933 and passed away in 2002, is seen in this image taken by Takashi Ito in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 19, 1998.

    Takashi Ito, a 69-year-old Japanese photojournalist who has followed Korean A-bomb survivors for about 40 years and has won awards for his reporting, said that North Korean hibakusha are "people who were effectively abandoned due to the diplomatic situation between nations, even though they are in need of humanitarian aid." He explained, "There were many munitions factories in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it's known that numerous individuals who had been sent there from the Korean peninsula suffered from the atomic bombings, but the exact figures are still unknown."

    An association of South Korean A-bomb survivors has estimated that of those who fell victim to the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about 70,000 individuals had roots on the Korean peninsula, and of them, some 40,000 died, while roughly 23,000 people returned home after the war.

    After diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea were restored in 1965, a system for supporting hibakusha living in South Korea was gradually established. Meanwhile, over 90,000 individuals, including Koreans who lived in Japan as well as Japanese wives and other Japanese nationals, moved to North Korea after World War II, and among them, approximately 3,000 are thought to be hibakusha. However, diplomatic relations between Japan and North Korea have not been normalized, and hibakusha residing in North Korea have been left abandoned.

    In 1985, Ito began reporting on A-bomb survivors who returned to South Korea, and also took up North Korean subjects from 1998. He has visited North and South Korea 43 and 47 times, respectively.

    Li Gye Son is seen speaking with a doctor at a radiological sciences institute in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this image taken by Takashi Ito on April 17, 2009.

    Ito recalled, "There was also a time when the Japanese government considered offering support. There were discussions to invite hibakusha from North Korea to Japan to have them undergo examinations and treatment, as well as doctors from North Korea to educate them on hibakusha treatment in Japan."

    In fact, the Japanese government dispatched an investigation team to North Korea in 2001. However, the next year, Pyongyang made an about-face and admitted that it had abducted Japanese citizens, causing bilateral relations to turn immediately sour. In addition to this, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test in 2006.

    "In 2008, the head of the Hiroshima Prefectural Medical Association and others visited North Korea in search of ways to offer assistance to hibakusha living there, and matters started to move forward again, but were set back once a second nuclear test was carried out in 2009," said Ito. It became difficult for the Japanese government to offer skills on hibakusha treatment to a country that continues to hold nuclear tests, and plans to support A-bomb victims have been halted to this day.

    According to a study by a hibakusha group founded in North Korea in 1995, as of the end of 2007, 1,911 A-bomb victims had been confirmed in the country, while 1,529 had already died. A follow-up investigation was conducted in 2018 and targeted 382 victims who were confirmed alive in the first study. Of the 111 people who were able to be traced, only 60 were still alive.

    Li Gye Son receives an examination at a radiological sciences institute in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 17, 2009, as seen in this image taken from documentary film "Hiroshima Pyongyang," which was provided by director Takashi Ito.

    In 2009, Ito released a documentary he filmed and directed himself. Titled "Hiroshima Pyongyang," the film mainly follows Li Gye Son, a Pyongyang resident born in 1941. She is said to have been exposed to radiation at the age of 3 after visiting a location near the hypocenter in Hiroshima with her mother shortly after the atomic bombing. Her mother, who lived in post-war Japan as a "Zainichi" Korean resident, obtained a hibakusha health handbook, but Li, who moved to North Korea in 1960, was unable to receive support.

    North Korea has been isolated from the outside world amid the coronavirus pandemic, and there has been news on its worsening economy and living conditions. Ito said, "Lately, I don't really know whether Li is doing well or not. Continuing to think about how we can support people who were abandoned (by the Japanese government) should hold great significance, but this summer will likely be full of reporting on only the Tokyo Olympics and the coronavirus."

    Ito plans to hold an exhibit featuring many photos of hibakusha living in North Korea from Aug. 5 to 8 at the Tsu Region Plaza in Tsu, Mie Prefecture.

    (Japanese original by Tatsuya Kishi, Digital News Center, Evening Edition Group)

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