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Tokyo court rejects case over N Korea repatriation program

Plaintiff Eiko Kawasaki, center, and her supporters walk toward the Tokyo District Court in Tokyo, on March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

TOKYO (AP) -- A Tokyo court cited a statute of limitations on Wednesday in rejecting a suit filed by five people seeking North Korea's responsibility over abuses they said they suffered for decades when they were lured to the North by Pyongyang's false promise of living in the "paradise on Earth."

    The five plaintiffs, including ethnic Koreans and Japanese who had moved to the North under the 1959-1984 repatriation program and have since fled from there, filed the lawsuit in 2018 seeking 100 million yen ($900,000) each in compensation over what they said was illegal "solicitation and detainment."

    In Wednesday's ruling, the Tokyo District Court focused on whether the court had jurisdiction over the case while staying away from clearly stating whether the repatriation program, which Japan's government also helped with, was illegal.

    Instead, the court rejected the case noting the plaintiffs waited too long to take legal action. The plaintiffs went to North between 1960 and 1972, and the 20-year statute of limitations had passed by the time they filed the case, it said.

    Judge Akihiro Igarashi also said that a Japanese court had no jurisdiction over their "detainment" in North Korea.

    Kenji Fukuda, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said they decided to appeal because "the court didn't respond to the case head on."

    "I feel like crying," said a plaintiff, Eiko Kawasaki, 79, an ethnic-Korean who was born and raised in Japan and went to the North in 1960. "There should be no statute of limitations for human rights violations."

    Kawasaki also urged the court for a speedy trial because time was limited for the elderly plaintiffs.

    "It has to be done quickly or we won't be alive for a ruling. Not being able to see the verdict while we are alive means I die without being able to see my children and grandchildren" still in the North, she added.

    Fukuda said the court did accept most evidence the plaintiffs submitted, including the deceptive campaign held in Japan for the repatriation and living conditions in the North -- setting a precedent for a legal case in Japan against North Korea over human rights violations.

    Fukuda urged the Japanese government to support the victims and negotiate with North Korea in the future on seeking Pyongyang's responsibility. The court had also agreed to symbolically summon North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

    Hundreds of thousands of Koreans came to Japan, many forcibly, to work in mines and factories during Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula -- a past that still strains relations between Japan and the Koreas.

    Today, about half a million ethnic Koreans live in Japan and still face discrimination in school, work and daily lives.

    In 1959, North Korea began a massive resettlement program to bring overseas Koreans home to make up for workers killed in the Korean War. The program continued to seek recruits, many of them originally from South Korea, until 1984.

    The Japanese government, viewing Koreans as outsiders, also welcomed the resettlement program and helped arrange for people to travel to North Korea. About 93,000 ethnic Korean residents of Japan and their family members responded and moved to North Korea.

    The plaintiffs say they believe many of them have died, but their descendants still in North Korea should be rescued. About 150 of them have made it back to Japan, according to a group supporting defectors from the North.

    North Korea had promised free health care, education, jobs and other benefits, but none was available and the returnees were mostly assigned manual work at mines, forests or farms, the plaintiffs said.

    Kawasaki, born and raised in Kyoto, was 17 when she took a ship to the North in 1960 and was confined there until defecting in 2003, leaving behind her grown children.

    The plaintiffs are now concerned about their families still in North Korea. They say they had lost contact with them more than two years ago, apparently due to the pandemic.

    "I just hope Japanese people still alive in the North will return home," said another plaintiff, Hiroko Saito, 80. She headed to the North with her Korean husband and a baby girl in 1961, until she fled in 2001.

    While Japan's government only focuses on the Japanese nationals abducted to the North in the 1970s and '80s, it should equally support those who were in the repatriation program because they are both victims of North Korean human rights abuses, she said.

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