Yoshi Takeuchi realized they had made a mistake as soon as the ferry docked in Chongjin, a major industrial city on North Korea’s east coast.
Instead of finding the “paradise on Earth” promised by her ethnic Korean husband, who was being “repatriated” to a country he’d never set foot in, the Japanese woman discovered a dilapidated city in even worse condition than their impoverished neighborhood in post-war Japan.
“As soon as we arrived, I said, ‘Let’s get back on the ferry and go back to Japan,’ ” recalls Takeuchi, now 80 and living in the western Japanese city of Osaka, having escaped from North Korea after spending 46 years there against her will.
“But it was too late. Some of the people on our ferry actually killed themselves when we arrived in Chongjin rather than have to live in North Korea,” she said in the tiny apartment she shares with her 40-year-old daughter, who fled North Korea last year.
Takeuchi was part of a wave of about 93,000 people — mostly ethnic Koreans, called “zainichi” here — who moved to North Korea as part of a Red Cross “repatriation” movement between 1959 and 1984, the vast majority of them in the first three years. Several thousand were Japanese women who went with their zainichi husbands, told they could return if they wanted. They could not.