Tokyo Bar Association Awards Human Rights Prize to LFNKR

Kato Hiroshi, executive director of LFNKR, speaking at awards event

Kato’s Speech Text

Honored members of the human rights awards screening committee of the Tokyo Bar Association, and ladies and gentlemen gathered here today, I would like to express profound thanks to the esteemed Tokyo Bar Association for presenting the human rights awards for 2008. We at Life Funds for North Korean Refugees are deeply honored to receive your award this year.

Receiving a human rights award came as a wonderful surprise. We have been engaged in our activities, hoping only and intensely for the day to come as soon as possible when the food shortages and the human rights abuses in North Korea are resolved and the outflow of the refugees ends. That would accomplish our mission and we would be able to dissolve our organization.

Since its founding in September 1998, Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR) has engaged in activities to help North Korean refugees who escape from their fatherland to third countries, as they seek for the minimum rights of existence, that is, sufficient food and social freedom. More specifically, LFNKR has supported North Korean refugees by securing their protection and safety and providing necessities for their daily life. At the same time, we have continued our efforts to win their official recognition as refugees according to the international convention on the status of refugees, so that they will be treated as such.

In addition, LFNKR distributes food to truly needy people in North Korea via our own self-developed routes and methods that allow us to deliver food to the people directly. We distribute shoes, winter socks, and heavy winter clothing to North Korean people living in extremely cold areas where the temperature goes down to -20 degrees Celsius. By offering to pay for medical treatment and operations, we help people suffering from serious frostbite. In that area, tuberculosis is widespread, and systematic measures are required for medical treatment. This cannot be done by an NGO like us. I am afraid that this challenge can be resolved only by unimpeded medical activities by international organizations.

Another major area of activities is our education sponsorship plan, which provides North Korean orphans with protection and minimum education. The orphans include some whose families have fallen apart because of lack of food, and others who escaped into China for food after their parents starved to death.

Human Rights Award for activities in 2008 being presented by the Tokyo Bar Association. Receiving the award for LFNKR (L to R) Takayuki Noguch and founding members Chizuko Yamashita and Kato Horishi.

Human Rights Award for activities in 2008 being presented by the Tokyo Bar Association. Receiving the award for LFNKR (L to R) Takayuki Noguch and founding members Chizuko Yamashita and Kato Horishi.

In May 2003, LFNKR was accredited as a specified nonprofit organization by The Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The LFNKR organization’s activities are financially supported purely by individual donations; it is a citizens’ group with no support from any particular political parties, political groups, or religious groups. For this reason, our organization’s finances depend solely upon the goodwill and support of individuals. This imposes severe limitations on how much and what we can do. This has always been the biggest challenge to continuing our activities.

Despite the challenge, we have steadily expanded the range of our activities. These activities include, for example: operating shelters for protecting North Korean defectors; protecting North Korean defectors jointly with Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); helping them move into South Korea, Japan, and the USA; helping them to resettle in Japan; testifying and lobbying in the American Congress and Euro parliaments; participating in international conferences on North Korean human rights issue, and; discussions with the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea.

We also have an underground railway to help North Korean defectors whose lives are in danger in China. We help them reach safe destinations. The underground railway is a reliable operation run through the joint efforts of international human rights NGOs and humanitarian aid workers.

One of the difficulties LFNKR currently faces is the resettlement of North Korean defectors who return to Japan. About 93,000 ethnic Koreans and their spouses left Japan for North Korea, believing the propaganda campaign, launched in 1959, that promised “North Korea is a paradise on earth.” Over the ensuing 50 years, the number of members in those families has grown. It is estimated that about 300,000 people in North Korea have relatives in Japan. The number of people who have fortunately escaped from their harsh lives in North Korea and returned to Japan is increasing each year.

The Japanese government has not publicly released the exact number of people who have returned to Japan, but we estimate that about 170 people have returned. Many others have resettled in South Korea, because they did not know they are actually qualified to come back to Japan. The Japanese government will accept descendents up to the third generation.

Those who were 1-year-old babies taken to North Korea by their ethnic Korean parents or Japanese spouses are 50 years old now. Because it is strictly prohibited to speak Japanese in North Korea, increasing numbers of people who cannot speak Japanese are returning to Japan. It is not easy to overcome the great differences in culture and values between North Korea and Japan developed by these people over the past 50 years.

For them to resettle in Japanese society, a comprehensive resettlement program, including Japanese language education is a must. Unfortunately, we still have no public facilities, such as a resettlement center.

However, we have found that junior high night schools in Japan are very helpful for the returned North Korean defectors. They are studying hard at the junior high night schools to learn the Japanese language. This type of education facility, I think, is currently playing an important role in helping them to resettle in our society.

In other words, if the junior high night school programs were discontinued, the returnees would lose the opportunity to learn not only the language but also basic Japanese culture as well. This would surely be a bitter disappointment after risking their lives on the long journey to Japan. We definitely want them to feel they have opportunities to begin new, happier lives here in Japan. We wish them to know that even though they are restarting with nothing, they can make a great success when they try and work hard.

We would hate to see them face more loss and despair in Japan by being denied basic human rights.

I would especially like to ask the members of the Tokyo Bar Association to protect the rights of these socially vulnerable people.

LFNKR will continue to do our best to save as many North Korean lives as possible, and contribute to the recognition of Japan as the human rights role model nation in Asia. This will require joint work with you, as legal experts.

Thank you.


New Year ceremonial breaking of sake barrel. Kato (center) joins the chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (right), chairman of the Tokyo Bar Association (2nd from right), and others.

New Year ceremonial breaking of sake barrel. Kato (center) joins the chairman of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (right), chairman of the Tokyo Bar Association (2nd from right), and others.