OSAKA, Japan — 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.
The plight of Japanese citizens still trapped in North Korea is now at the top of the political agenda in Tokyo, with Shinzo Abe, the conservative prime minister, pushing Pyongyang to finally account for the 12 people it abducted during the late 1970s and early 1980s, apparently to use them to help train spies. The 12 have never returned home.
There is a huge amount of public interest in the abductees, who have been featured in everything from documentaries to comic books, and especially in Megumi Yokota, who was 13 when she was snatched on her way home from school. People wear blue pins on their lapels as a sign of support for the abductees, and posters in subway stations show an old man with the words: “We have not forgotten.”
But there is little sympathy for the women who moved to North Korea with their zainichi husbands. They are widely considered to have gone of their own volition, although most say they had no choice.
“Some people say that they chose to go to North Korea, but that’s not right. In a way, they were also kidnapped,” said Fumiaki Yamada, head of the Society to Help Returnees from North Korea, an Osaka-based group that helps the women.
In many cases, even their own families think they brought their fate upon themselves.
Tsutae Ueda, one of the first Japanese wives to return home, recalled her first phone conversation with her mother, then 93, upon her escape after 43 years: “Why are you calling now? You should go back to North Korea.”
Now, desperate for friends — or rather, their money — North Korea has agreed to open an investigation about Japanese nationals living there and is due to deliver its first findings soon, perhaps by the end of September.
Abe, whose government has already eased some of Japan’s sanctions against North Korea as a gesture of goodwill, has repeatedly made it clear that the abductees are his top priority. This is not only for humanitarian reasons but to boost his popularity ratings and cement his legacy, analysts say.
It is not clear whether the wives will even be included in North Korea’s report, and advocates fear they will be overlooked. “Right now, we have only North Korea’s word that they’re investigating,” Yamada said.
The issue is a political “minefield” for the prime minister, said Markus Bell, a doctoral student at Australian National University who is researching North Korean defectors in Japan.
“Bringing back 12 abductees would be a nice legacy for Abe,” he said, “but bringing back thousands of people would undermine all his forward momentum. He’s making a token effort, but this is never going to be a priority.”
The 10 wives who have made it back to Japan certainly enjoy a better life than they did in repressive, impoverished North Korea, but that is not to say they enjoy a good life.
Takeuchi’s case is typical. She ended up in North Korea in 1960 after her husband, who had lost his job and was struggling to feed the family, insisted that they and their 4-month-old son give North Korea — then in better condition than South Korea — a chance.
“My family was upset, but they couldn’t do anything about it; we didn’t have enough to live on,” she recalled.
Then began 46 years of hell.
While Japan was growing into the world’s second-largest economy, Takeuchi lived in a third-floor walk-up apartment with no plumbing, carrying a baby in one arm and their toilet bucket in the other. While Japan was inventing the Walkman and the $500 steak, Takeuchi was cooking soup made from potato peels and powdered corn cobs.
Three of her six children died, and so did the husband who took her there. In 2006, she finally managed to escape to China, then to Japan.
Now Takeuchi lives on her tiny welfare check — she’s not eligible for Japanese social security because she did not contribute anything to the pot — and tries to adjust to life in the capitalist, high-tech 21st century.
“It was hard to understand TV at first, because there were so many new words,” Takeuchi said. “It took me three or four years, but then it started to get easier.”
Takeuchi and her daughter speak Korean to each other, while the daughter goes to a Japanese class in the evenings. “Oh, it’s so hard!” she said, sitting on the floor in the living room with her textbooks.
Yamada and his group advise North Koreans who make it to Japan to pour all their energies into learning the language, saying that this is the key to being able to understand the culture and eventually find a job.
Abe could do much more to support the women who made it back to Japan, as well as those who remain in North Korea, said Ueda — who, like Takeuchi, felt she had no choice but to go to North Korea when her zainichi husband said he was taking her 2-year-old son regardless.
For starters, Abe should bring back everyone at once, she said, noting that it would be extremely difficult to carry out separate negotiations for the wives. As for the women now in Japan, she said the government could easily be more generous toward them. “Only 10 Japanese wives have escaped, so it wouldn’t hurt the government to give us a tiny bit of financial support.”
But she also has some strategic advice for the prime minister. “I lived in North Korea long enough to know how things work,” Ueda said. “They want money from Japan — that’s why they’re negotiating — but if the government gives them the money upfront, they won’t get anyone back.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the ages of the sons of Yoshi Takeuchi and Tsutae Ueda.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.