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Japanese Intern at NK Strategy Center: “Human Rights is a Universal Issue”

November 28, 2012

The following interview with Suguro Keisuke, a Japanese intern at the North Korea Strategy Center, appeared on pages 54-55 in the July 2012 issue of NK Vision magazine. The original interview was conducted in Korean and translated into English.

Read in Korean

How did you first get interested in North and South Korea?
In middle school I started to study Korean on my own, and when I went to high school I studied Korean there as a foreign language six hours a week, and then 12 hours a week during my senior year. In doing so I became really interested in Korea. When I went to college, I studied world literature and took Korean again. Since I had studied Korean for more than three years, I was able to speak some Korean, though not as well as I can now. As a result, I decided to study abroad at Yonsei University for three semesters. I made many friends. That was during the Roh Moo Hyun administration, and I visited Mt. Kumgang twice and Kaesong once. I soon found myself wanting to study more about North Korea. My interest in North Korea wasn’t due to any particular event, but simply grew during my studies in South Korea. Following my desire to conduct more serious study on North Korea, I decided to enter the Unification Studies M.A. Program at Yonsei University.

Please tell us about your activities on behalf of North Korean human rights.
My interest in North Korea led me to work for a short time as an intern at the Daily NK while studying in South Korea. I am currently working on a master’s thesis focused on the Korean-Japanese who repatriated back to North Korea (재일동포 북송사업). I am also participating in a North Korean human rights club at school every Saturday, and as of this May have been working as an intern at the North Korea Strategy Center (북한전략센터).

What do you think about South Korean society’s view on North Korean human rights?
I think South Korean people have a lot of interest in North Korea. However, the issue is where their interest lies. There is no doubt South Koreans support reunification, but they have differing opinions on when and how to bring it about. I have met many defectors while studying in South Korea. In doing so, I have learned that the situation of North Korean human rights is much worse than I had thought. Human rights are basic rights given to all people regardless of politics or political systems, and I don’t think it is good to politicize it.

Can you tell us more about the thesis your writing? How did you chose your topic and what specifically are you writing about?
There are almost 25,000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. There are 200 of them in Japan as well. Most of them are former Korean-Japanese who at one time had repatriated to North Korea or their descendants. Their number is small, and most of them chose to come to Japan because they had once lived there or their parents were born there. Between 1959 and 1984, 93,340 Korean-Japanese returned to North Korea. It’s been 50 years since the repatriations began, but I thought it was unfortunate that their fate has been forgotten. It was true that these Korean-Japanese volunteered to go back to North Korea, and that the repatriations were made for humanitarian reasons. However, with time it has been revealed that repatriates suffered from severe human rights abuses. North Korea needed labor, and the high numbers of Japanese-Koreans receiving public assistance made for a troublesome existence in Japan. I think that what occurred was a tragedy of history and it’s hard to lay blame or punishment on any particular party. It’s important to hold someone responsible, but it’s important that this type of historical tragedy not be forgotten even if North Korea eventually becomes democratic.

What kind of reaction do you get in Japan when you say you are working to improve North Korean human rights?
When I told my parents that I was visiting Mt. Kumgang, they were very worried. The image of North Korea in Japan is generally bad. There’s the nuclear issue and then the abduction issue, in particular. However, this is a universal human rights issue. So even if North Korea’s image in Japan is bad, I believe I have to do what I need to do.

What kind of advantages or disadvantages do you have as foreigner while working in the North Korean human rights movement?
As a foreigner, I am a minority in South Korean society. We can wait for a celebrity to step forward and say something about North Korean human rights, but as a foreigner and especially as a Japanese person I think people can take even more interest in what I’m doing. I also think that as a Japanese person I will be able to help improve the human rights situation in North Korea when I return to Japan.

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