No ‘Paradise on Earth’: Justice for Migrants from Japan to North Korea

by | May 7, 2024

author profile picture

About Andrew Wolman

Andrew Wolman is a Senior Lecturer at City Law School, City, University of London. He previously taught human rights and international law at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, in Seoul, Korea.

Over 93,000 ethnic Koreans and their families emigrated from Japan to North Korea during the period 1959-1984. They did so because of lies and misleading propaganda. The North Korean regime marketed their country as a ‘Paradise on Earth’, with free food and education, and no ethnic discrimination. The Japanese government saw Koreans as an economic and social burden and encouraged their departure. Once in North Korea, the migrants from Japan were usually assigned to perform manual labour in dire conditions. They were treated with suspicion by the North Korean authorities and sometimes faced detention in North Korea’s notorious prison camps. They were not allowed to return to Japan, even to visit family. Eventually, around 500 escaped and settled down in Japan and South Korea. In recent years, the escapees have sought justice.

Seeking Justice in Japan

In 2018, four plaintiffs filed suit against North Korea in Japan, seeking 100 million yen damages apiece. North Korea was informed of the suit through notice posted on the court’s bulletin board, but did not appear at any stage of the proceeding.

The Tokyo District Court found that the case was not barred by sovereign immunity because Japan does not recognise the state of North Korea. It also found that the plaintiffs had moved to North Korea because of false information. The case was dismissed, however, because the District Court decided that the plaintiffs were proffering two separate claims: for solicitation through false propaganda (prior to leaving Japan), and for a denial of freedom of movement once the migrants had arrived in North Korea. The false propaganda claim was time-barred, while the denial of freedom of movement claim did not take place in Japan and was therefore outside the Court’s jurisdiction. The plaintiffs appealed.

On 30 October 2023, the Tokyo High Court overturned the District Court’s decision. The High Court found that North Korea’s misleading pre-departure propaganda and ensuing post-migration human rights violations constituted a single continuous act. This meant that the plaintiffs were no longer time-barred. It also meant that the entire continuous act fell within the Court’s jurisdiction, because the misleading propaganda was issued on Japanese territory. The case has now been remanded to the District Court for retrial.

Seeking Justice in South Korea

Victims living in South Korea are pursuing their own avenues for justice and accountability. In December 2022, activists representing over 20 victims filed a request for the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the resettlement programme and the migrants’ experiences in Japan. An investigation was officially opened in November 2023. The Commission cannot award compensation, but it can help bring to light the victims’ experiences, which can be used in future court cases or victim-centred measures.

Meanwhile, on 15 March 2024, five South Korean victims acting with the assistance of the NKDB Center for Human Rights Legal Support initiated their own lawsuit against the North Korean state for its role in the ‘Paradise on Earth’ migration. The plaintiffs seek 100 million won each to compensate for the psychological damages they suffered as a result of being forcibly detained in North Korea as well as the other abuses they suffered after having migrated due to false propaganda. North Korea was served with papers at their UN Mission in New York, but is not expected to participate in the trial.  The plaintiffs have a good chance of winning their lawsuit: in a landmark 2020 case, North Korea was found liable by a South Korean court for forcibly detaining and enslaving two Korean prisoners of war, and was ordered to pay each plaintiff 21 million won.  Their efforts to collect the compensation, however, have so far been unsuccessful.

Next Steps

The litigation in Japan and South Korea is ongoing, and important decisions in each case can be expected in the coming months. If North Korea is found liable for damages, the plaintiffs would then have the difficult task of actually collecting their compensation. The lawyer in the Japanese case has suggested that North Korean assets in Japan would be targeted. In the past, US plaintiffs have received limited compensation from seized North Korean bank accounts and sanction-violating ships.

New cases are also likely. The North Korean state did not act alone in deceiving prospective migrants. They were assisted by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), the Japanese state, and the Japanese Red Cross Society. In fact, the Japanese plaintiffs’ representative has suggested that a lawsuit against Chongryon would be coming next. There are challenges in broadening the scope of the case – in particular, the statute of limitations may present a renewed barrier for both Japanese and South Korean plaintiffs if North Korean state abuses are no longer a focal point of the case – but victims continue to be energised to hold the involved organisations accountable, and to find compensation for their years of suffering.

Share this:

Related Content


Submit a Comment