To the surprise of people around him, the ethnic Korean man living in the eastern Kanto area announced earlier this year he would return to live in his home country -- North Korea -- for good.
From the early postwar years, the man -- who only identified himself as "Kim" -- assumed important posts in the Korean community in Japan which sided with the communist state, such as principal of a pro-Pyongyang school and local branch chief of the General Association of Korean Residents (Chongryon). Throughout his adult life, he has been a "dyed-in-the-wool supporter of Kim Il-sung," the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, according to a person who knows him well.
Kim has maintained his allegiance to North Korea as he approached 90. But none of his friends and acquaintances would have thought he might one day return to the North to spend his last years in the secluded and isolated Stalinist country.
However, Kim joined the growing exodus of Korean residents in Japan who are seeking a sense of security and low-cost sunset years in the impoverished hermit kingdom.
Korean residents in Japan, or "zainichi," may express their support to the "Kim dynasty" in the North, but few of them would be willing to leave Japan without obtaining permission for re-entry and go to the country to live there permanently. That's because they know all too well the horrible living conditions in North Korea.
"Except for Pyongyang, where only the chosen few can live, the rest of the nation is suffering from a chronic and acute food shortage," said one resident in Japan. "When I visited North Korea, I called my relatives living in rural areas over to Pyongyang. They were all lean and scrawny and looked like old men and women full of wrinkles even though they were in their 40's and 50's."
For all the hardships likely awaiting in North Korea, Kim, the elderly zainichi, decided to leave his life in Japan behind and go to the debilitated country to spend his sunset years there. Why? The answer is the pension he receives from the Japanese government.
Kim receives some 240,000 yen ($3,100) in pension benefits every two months, or about 120,000 yen per month. As he was living in a 60,000 yen-a-month apartment, Kim had 60,000 yen for living expenses when he was in Japan. Apparently, it was getting harder for him to live on that amount.
"Until about 10 years ago, he lived in a house built on leased land," his acquaintance says. "As he was forced to move, he received a considerable sum of money. After years of dipping into the money, he told me he had used up his savings."
He would often tell people around him that he could manage to get by if his monthly pension benefits were 30,000 yen more and that he wanted to continue to live in Japan if possible.
As his close friends died or became senile, however, Kim eventually found himself with no one he could turn to for help.
Kim had been living alone since his wife died about 20 years ago. The couple was proud of their child, who did well at school. But the child died at an early age in an accident.
Kim's younger sister, who lives in South Korea, urged him to come over to live there, but that wouldn't have done much to ease his financial difficulty. He was also uncertain about whether he would be able to fit in with South Korean society after so many years of supporting the North Korean regime.
With this and that, he was getting increasingly worried about his future, wondering who would take care of him.
Just as he began to confront the gloomy prospect of his later years, his nephew and niece, who live in Pyongyang, suggested that he live in North Korea's capital, saying 30,000 yen per month would be enough for living in the city. They are the son and daughter of his late younger brother.
Kim's brother left Japan and went to live in North Korea under the regime's "homecoming program," which lasted from 1959 to 1984. Some 93,000 Korean residents and their Japanese spouses went to live in the country under the program, which promised a life in a "paradise on earth." But what actually awaited them was a life of hardships and privations.
North Korea is under a reign of terror as it was during the period of the program. What is different today is that citizens can buy food at markets if they have foreign currency, although they still have to deal with constant power outages.
Kim's 120,000 yen of monthly pension benefits are worth some 3,360,000 North Korean won at the current market rate, according to Korean residents in Japan. That is about 1,100 times the average amount workers in the country earn every month.
"It is totally impossible for ordinary people in the North to live only on their salaries, and they manage to scrape by as all the family members do various side work," said Kim's acquaintance. "A simple comparison may be misleading, but it is certain that 120,000 yen is a huge sum in the country. Kim's relatives (in North Korea) are eagerly inviting him to come over to live there only for his pension, of course."
The prospect of living in Pyongyang was apparently less intimidating for Kim than that of settling down in a rural area in North Korea. Despite his wish to continue living in Japan, Kim eventually went to Pyongyang for permanent residence.
A Japanese pensioner living in a low-cost country to take advantage of the yen's strength is by no means a rare story. There are, for instance, many elderly Japanese men living with a young Filipina in the Southeast Asian country. Retirement life in a foreign country, especially a tropical developing country, is a popular choice among Japanese pensioners because they can receive their benefits wherever they live as long as they are eligible recipients.
But living off a pension in North Korea is a different story because of a complicated process of receiving remittances from abroad in the country. Unlike most other countries, including the Philippines, where Japanese pensioners can get their benefits transferred to their accounts at local banks, North Korea has no efficient and reliable system for such international remittances.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare and Japan Pension Service, pensioners who want to receive their benefits in North Korea must first complete the special procedures required, which involve the designation of their representatives in Japan, usually lawyers.
The representatives receive the pensioners' benefits on their behalf as the money is transferred to the recipients' accounts at Japanese banks. Then, the representatives send the money to the pensioners by using international mail or travel to North Korea to hand it directly to the recipients.
Even more troublesome is to prepare the certificate of residence required to receive pension benefits. Japanese pensioners living overseas are required to submit two documents to Japan Pension Service once a year: a notice written by themselves verifying that they are alive and thus eligible to receive their pension and a certificate of residence confirmed by the local Japanese embassy. Failure to submit these documents leads to a suspension of the benefit payments.
But there is no Japanese diplomatic establishment to issue such a certificate in North Korea, with which Japan has no formal diplomatic relationship.
In such cases, a certificate of residence issued by the country's public institution with a note about the special circumstances of the pensioner attached can be used as a substitute for the required document, according to the welfare ministry and Japan Pension Service.
"We have no choice but to trust the country's certificate," says a government official.
It seems that this system can easily be abused by the relatives of pensioners. After a pensioner dies, for instance, isn't it possible for his or her relatives to receive the pension fraudulently by not reporting the death to the Japanese authorities?
Last year, such a case of pension fraud came to light in Tokyo. It was revealed that the relatives of a man who died more than 30 years before had been receiving the pension benefits paid out to him by hiding his death from the authorities.
According to officials, such fraud by pensioners in North Korea is prevented because lawyers serving as the representatives for pensioners in North Korea take turns to travel to the country every two months to hand the benefits to all of them. The lawyers take the opportunity to confirm that the recipients are alive.
Elderly Korean residents in Japan who return to North Korea often die within a year or so after they get sick, according to one zainichi who is well informed about the living conditions in the country.
"There are hospitals in North Korea, but there is not enough medicine, nor any welfare system for the elderly," says the Korean resident. "At hospitals, the families of patients are just told to give them nutritious food and keep them on their back."
One acquaintance of the Kim who has gone to North Korea to live there said, "After all, he has effectively returned to his home country to die there. He probably wanted relatives to attend his deathbed. His nephew and niece probably take good care of him because his pension benefits come from Japan only as long as he is alive."
In August, a 90-year-old female activist of the Chongryon who lived in Kyoto also returned to North Korea for permanent residence.
According to the association's official newspaper, the woman decided on the move after her son, who has been living in Pyongyang since he returned to the country from Japan in 1960, urged her to return home when she visited North Korea in a wheelchair in June.
Another elderly female Korean resident who is living alone in Kanto is also considering returning to North Korea to spend the rest of her life there.
The Korean community in Japan is growing old just as the nation's overall population is rapidly aging.
There will inevitably be a growing number of Korean residents in Japan who have to give a serious thought to the question of where they want to die.
(This article was written by AERA staff writer Kiyohito Kotani.)
- « Prev
- Next »