North Korea, family and soup: The inspiration for a 26-year odyssey

A family photograph of Yang Yonghi with her brothers in Osaka, before they left Japan. (For The Washington Post)
8 min

TOKYO — Yang Yonghi’s parents devoted their lives to the North Korean regime. They were not North Koreans.

They sent their three sons to North Korea in the 1970s and helped persuade thousands of others living in Japan to do the same, believing they would live a more prosperous life in Pyongyang. Yang’s South Korea-born father was a founding member of a pro-North Korean organization based in Japan, supported by the Pyongyang regime.

Yang, the couple’s only child to remain in Japan, struggled for decades to understand or accept it all. So for the past quarter-century, the documentarian has explored her family’s history through her films, capturing the turbulence and nebulousness of the “Zainichi Koreans,” or ethnic Koreans in Japan.

Yang is among nearly half a million Zainichi Koreans who live at the intersection of the histories of the Korean Peninsula and Japan. They shoulder the generational traumas of war, colonization, division, statelessness and marginalization.

“They say Zainichi is a collection of unresolved histories and the irresponsible decisions of politicians. This family is a microcosm of that,” Yang, 57, said in an interview at her home in Tokyo.

She has made three films focused on this community through the lens of her family, and they have screened at international film festivals, including Berlin and Sundance.

“The tragedy of this family was incredibly attractive as a source material. I was conscious of the cruelty of my decision, but it was the right one, and one that made for a more intriguing project,” she said. “I just didn’t think it would go on for this long.”

Yang’s relatives, like nearly all ethnic Koreans who arrived as laborers in Japan during the 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of their country, had roots in what is now South Korea. While many ethnic Koreans returned to their homeland after the occupation ended, others stayed in Japan, enduring poverty and discrimination.

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Capitalizing on Japanese discrimination against ethnic Koreans, and South Korea’s indifference to them, Pyongyang made overtures to the community in the decades after the peninsula’s division and the 1950-1953 Korean War through a repatriation program. Between 1959 and 1984, some 93,000 people migrated from Japan in search of a better life during a “Paradise on Earth” campaign that promised a socialist utopia with jobs and free health care and education.

The moment they stepped off their ships, the migrants realized they had been grossly misled. But they weren’t allowed to leave North Korea, a country none of them had been to before.

The man who advocated for this program in Japan was Yang’s father, Yang Gong-seon.

A terrible realization

Yang Gong-seon was born on the South Korean island of Jeju, and was drawn to communism as a teen. After he moved to the Japanese city of Osaka in 1942, he became a founding member of the Chosen Soren, the pro-Pyongyang Zainichi organization. In Osaka, he met Kang Junghi, who became his wife and joined him in his activism.

They sent their relatives to North Korea through the repatriation program — including their three sons, who were 14, 16 and 18 years old when they left in the early 1970s. Yang, their youngest child, was only about 6.

Chosen Soren heralded the family as a model of patriotism. Other Zainichi assured Yang’s parents that the Koreas would reunite within five years and their sons would soon be able to visit Japan freely.

The Koreas remain separated today. The boys could not return to Japan.

Yet her parents remained loyal to North Korea. They hung portraits of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, in their homes — an act of reverence to the regime and to North Korea, which they called their “homeland” even though they had never been there.

In 1983, when Japan was rapidly becoming a global economic power, Yang and her parents made their first trip to Pyongyang. It wasn’t until then that her parents witnessed the reality of life in impoverished North Korea.

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Yang visited Pyongyang 10 times over the next 22 years, becoming increasingly disillusioned by her family’s loyalty. She channeled that tension into her first documentary, “Dear Pyongyang,” in which she explored her strained relationship with her dad over his steadfast support of the regime.

After it was released in 2005, Chosen Soren issued a letter demanding an apology, which Yang ignored.

She was then banned from North Korea but used the footage from her previous trips in her second film, “Goodbye Pyongyang,” about her family living there.

“Goodbye Pyongyang,” released in 2009, focuses on her only niece, Sona, with whom Yang feels a special bond as the only girl among brothers. Yang chronicles Sona’s growing up in North Korea, and the ways their lives are different despite how closely she identifies with the girl.

Yang’s brothers and their families lived comfortably by North Korean standards, but only because of the cash and goods that their mother sent. The eldest struggled with depression and died of a heart attack in 2009.

The others kept in touch via letters until the North Korean coronavirus lockdown that began in 2020.

Filmmaker Yonghi Yang struggles to understand why her loving father would destroy his family out of political loyalty to an isolated and enigmatic regime. (Video: TidepointPictures)

“Do you regret sending all three of them?” she asks her father in a climactic scene of “Dear Pyongyang.”

“They’ve already gone, so there’s nothing you can do, but, well, I wonder whether it would have been better when they — if they — did not go,” he answers.

Despite their differences, Yang’s father never interfered in her work. In one of her final conversations with her father before he died in 2009, Yang told him that she might produce work that he would not be happy about.

“Follow the path you choose, all the way,” he told her.

Overcoming differences with soup

Yang’s newest film, “Soup and Ideology,” released in South Korea in October, focuses on her mother, Kang Junghi. Kang was born in Osaka but spent several years in Jeju as a teen, witnessing a massacre in which South Korea’s military dictatorship killed nearly 30,000 civilians — then covered it up for decades.

It wasn’t until late in her life that Kang began recalling those years for historians. Yang began to understand why her mother was so deeply distrustful of the South and was instead drawn to the North.

“It’s not that I agree with everything … but at the very least, I now understand why she lived the way she did,” Yang said. “I believe she made the best choices she could to live her life, and was as optimistic as possible in extremely difficult circumstances. I respect her for that.”

Until her death last year, her mother sent cash and massive boxes filled with food, medicine and other goods for her sons and their families. After each trip to the North, her care packages would grow bigger.

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“She never cried in front of me while talking about my brothers … she always smiled when she mentioned them,” Yang said. “I thought to myself, someone who has suffered this much in life must have no more tears to spare.”

The mother passed down her recipe for Korean chicken soup, or “samgyetang,” to Yang’s Japanese husband.

This became the subject of her latest film, which explores how people with vastly different beliefs can share a meal under one roof, despite their differences. The film culminates in Yang’s husband eventually making samgyetang for her and her mother at Kang’s home.

“Soup and Ideology,” now screening in Japan and South Korea, will be the final documentary in her trilogy about her family’s history. She plans to release it in the United States at colleges and film festivals this year.

“I have been buried in my family’s history, digging, gazing. The more I dug, I realized it was deeper than I anticipated,” she said. “I could not find the exit, so I kept at another movie, another movie. When I got to ‘Soup and Ideology,’ I saw the exit.”

At the end of the film, Yang removes the Kims’ portraits from her parents’ old home. It symbolizes her farewell to her family, she said.

“It took me 26 years, and I needed that time,” she said, recalling the years that had passed between her first gathering footage in 1995 for “Dear Pyongyang” and finishing “Soup and Ideology” in 2021.

“It’s not a denial of my father and mother. It’s an understanding, a respect, for their lives. … My father, mother, my brothers, all lived one way. That ends with me.”