The gift of freedom given by Japanese civic groups to new arrivals from North Korea carries a heavy debt, writes Markus Bell.
From 1959 to 1984, some 90,000 Koreans migrated from Japan to North Korea as part of the ‘repatriation movement’. In the last 15 years approximately 300 of these migrants—known as Zainichi—have returned to Japan.
For these returnees, their resettlement in Japan and their relationship to members of Japanese society is often hampered by a sense of obligation to those who have facilitated their return.
Forced migration takes numerous forms and, in tandem with the resettlement process, is often a traumatic experience that requires significant emotional and physical rehabilitation, and time to recover.
In many cases, during the early stages of resettlement, government services shape new arrivals into specific kinds of citizens.
But what happens when the government neither supports nor acknowledges the arrival and existence of a group of asylum seekers? Who organises visas and helps register for employment? Who shows the new arrival how to use basic services and navigate the bureaucratic spider web of the postindustrial society?
Based on a year of ethnographic fieldwork in Osaka and Tokyo, my new article, published through Asian Anthropology, explores these questions through the theoretical lens of ‘gifting’ as they relate to immigrants from North Korea.
North Koreans who cross the Sino–Korean border into China undocumented are immediately at risk of forced repatriation by Chinese security services. As such, North Korean refugees/migrants are vulnerable to predations of people traffickers and the sex industry.
Japanese civic groups help with the risky outward migration and resettlement of North Koreans to Japan. Contributing to discussions on forced migration and non-governmental organisations, my article shows that the gift of freedom given by Japanese civic groups to new arrivals from North Korea carries a heavy debt in the form of the attendant obligation to reciprocate. The debt often leads vulnerable individuals to involve themselves in risky activities that put themselves and their family in North Korea in danger.
Japan is a signatory to the 1951 International Refugee Treaty, but does not accept asylum seekers from North Korean unless they can prove they were part of the repatriation movement. Consequently, each of the 300 people who have arrived in Japan from North Korea over the past 15 years either migrated to North Korea in the 1960s and 70s, or is a descendant of these original ‘repatriates’ to have crossed the Sea of Japan.
The Japanese government’s concerns, discussed in-depth by Mikyoung Kim, relate to antagonising China, North Korea’s key ally, and fears of encouraging a large numbers of North Korean asylum seekers.
The burden of assisting North Korean arrivals to Japan has subsequently fallen on Japanese civic organisations. These organisations take on a number of tasks when a person arrives in Japan. Many new arrivals require accommodation, employment, access to Japanese language training, and help with state services.
Role of civic groups
Civic groups play an important role in helping North Koreans hiding in China and in the countries in which they resettle. But these groups are by no means purely altruistic entities in the lives of North Korean refugees; the organisations and individuals working within them are motivated by a range of different ideologies that they use to justify spending their own time and money maintaining their activities.
Civic groups often expect new arrivals to join them in publicly criticising North Korea, in some instances taking high-profile activist roles designed to undermine the North Korean government and its representation in Japan
Similar to civic groups in South Korea, Japanese nonprofit organisations (NPOs) present vulnerable individuals from North Korea with both freedom and bondage. Freedom comes with the chance to begin a new life, away from North Korea’s tyrannical state apparatus. Bondage, on the other hand, is the inevitable result of the violence imparted by a gift that can never be repaid. In an effort to renegotiate this debt, returnees continuously do small favors for NPOs and foster pseudo-kinship relations to underline and reconfigure their relationship with organisation members.
Efforts by returnees to mitigate the burden of the gift are not, however, always successful. Civic groups often expect new arrivals to join them in publicly criticising North Korea, in some instances taking high-profile activist roles designed to undermine the North Korean government and its representation in Japan. The relationship between Japanese NPOs and North Korean asylum seekers infantilises new arrivals and puts them and their families who remain in North Korea in danger.
In making pseudo-kinship relationships with Japanese NPO members, returnees from North Korea risk damaging their real familial relations. The poison of the gift threatens to creep outwards, along returnees’ kinship networks, rupturing familial ties to loved ones left behind in North Korea.
The tenuous relationship of Japanese civic groups to forced migrants from North Korea is not unique and can teach us lessons that we can apply to other situations in which a power imbalance characterises a relationship between vulnerable people and the groups tasked with helping them.
Markus Bell’s new article, ‘Making and Breaking Family: North Korea’s Zainichi Returnees and “the Gift”’, is now available through Asian Anthropology.
A Zainichi Korean family conducts ancestral rites in their Tsuruhashi, Osaka home. Photo: Markus Bell