Report from a Refugee Who Made It Back

No One Said Fitting into Japanese Society Would Be Easy

Mr. Park went to North Korea with his family when he was four years old. The family went to Onson County in North Hamgyong Province, where they were assigned to a coal mining operation. Then, in 1999, he fled to China to escape the food shortages and starvation that had plagued the country throughout the 1990s. Park found, however, that life in China was very hard due to his illegal status. One employer made off with Park’s wages, leaving him without a single yuan and in despair. 

By chance, Park heard about Life Funds for North Korean Refugees from a South Korean NGO operating in China, and in 2006 he returned to Japan with his son. Although he was returning to Japan, the fact that he could speak almost no Japanese, coupled with the fact that he was over 50, made finding work very difficult. In addition, Park’s relatives in Japan could speak no Korean. Fortunately, they were very welcoming and accepted him into the family. Although the language barrier did provide its share of mishaps, Park and his relatives managed to communicate with each other.

I asked Park recently how he and his son were doing. The president of the Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) was also the president of a construction company, and gave Park a construction job, where he works mainly with machinery. For Park, his age was a concern with regard to employment, and he also worried about whether he would be able to continue working construction as he got older. But apparently one of his coworkers is 70 years old, which has put his mind at ease somewhat. Every morning Park gets up early, makes his lunch, and leaves for work. He says his hope is to continue working for many years to come.

Between worrying about finding work, and about whether he would manage to make his way in Japanese society, Mr. Park must deal with a lot of stress. But since securing employment he has had one less thing to worry about and seems much calmer and more relaxed as a result, leaving him with the energy to plan his future.

In April of this year, his son Akira began attending junior high classes at night [the Japanese school year begins in April]. He is also attending Japanese-language school during the day where he is learning the basics of the language from T, his teacher, and plans to continue attending until June. Akira’s father is anxious for his son to learn Japanese and is encouraging him in his efforts. His night-school teacher also says that his progress in Japanese has been faster than expected. He seems to understand most of what is said to him, even though some other foreign students at the school understand very little.

I asked one of the Parks’ cousins in Japan if Akira was thinking about getting a part-time job. I found out that Akira is planning to focus on his Japanese studies for now, but that he has been replying to help-wanted ads in the neighborhood. He has already had some interviews, although some were unsuccessful.

Park and his relatives have also encouraged Akira to focus on studying Japanese. Akira himself has been leaving early for Japanese classes and coming home late after his junior-high classes. It looks as though he will have his work cut out for him.

Report submitted by Kim Wong-shuk
(LFNKR Ethnic Korean staff member in Japan)