North Koreans abandoned in the shadow of Hiroshima

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They are the forgotten victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the ones who endured the atomic nightmares and have struggled for nearly six decades in one of the world's most isolated and impoverished countries.

They are the forgotten victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the ones who endured the atomic nightmares and have struggled for nearly six decades in one of the world's most isolated and impoverished countries.

Survivors of the atom bomb living in North Korea share yet one more unhappy distinction: They are the only victims of the US nuclear attacks on Japan that receive no assistance from the Japanese government.

And 59 years on, as the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gather this weekend to commemorate the day a new kind of death rained from their skies, killing more than 160,000 people and leaving countless thousands sick and dying, the plight of the forgotten North Korean victims remains unresolved.

But there are signs that the issue is at least beginning to receive official attention. The Japanese Health minister, Chikara Sakaguchi, said last week: "There is one remaining issue involving overseas atomic bombing survivors, and that is North Korea."

Little is known about the bomb survivors in North Korea, many of whom were repatriated in the 1950s. The Japanese government estimates there are about 930 of them, but support groups say the real number is twice that, at 1,953.

Even less is known about their health or their access to treatment. Bomb survivors - numbering a total of 285,600, including 5,000 living abroad - can develop myriad radiation-related maladies, including cancer and liver troubles.

The North Korean survivors are largely victims of politics. Tokyo has long resisted providing full assistance to survivors not residing in Japan, but a 2002 court ruling forced the government to funnel more relief to victims living abroad.

Japan provides monthly allowances of up to 140,000 yen (£690) and free medical checkups to survivors living in Japan. Foreign-based survivors, mostly in South Korea, are getting a smaller package.

Since 2002, the monthly allowances have been available to all survivors as long as they had special certificates available only in Japan.

Government officials say they do not know of any North Koreans who registered before leaving Japan. Under the communist regime in Pyongyang, citizens are not free to travel to Japan to register now.

Even if they could register, officials in Tokyo say they are loathe to send benefits because they have no idea whether the money would be confiscated. Japan and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations, and as such the situation of the victims is unlikely to change.

Takaaiki Kikuta, a Health Ministry official said: "There is little we can do until diplomatic ties are normalised. Among many uncertainties, we are not familiar with North Korea's financial system, or whether the aid money would safely reach the survivors if we sent it."

Supporters, however, say that a special effort should be made for the North Koreans, who were brought by the hundreds of thousands to Japan as soldiers and labourers during Tokyo's harsh 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Lee Sil Gun, a 75-year-old pro-Pyongyang resident in Japan, said: "All these years, the Japanese government has abandoned survivors in North Korea." Mr Lee was in Japan's western port city of Kobe selling black-market rice the day the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, and he was exposed to radiation when he returned home the following day. He now suffers from liver ailments.

Many of his Korean friends and neighbours who survived the bombing later moved to North Korea in a state-sponsored repatriation program beginning in 1959.

Mr Lee, who interviewed about a dozen survivors during a visit to Pyongyang two years ago, said many North Korean survivors are getting old, frail and in dire need of help.

Mr Lee said: "I'm sure there are ways to provide humanitarian support for the survivors rather than waiting for normalisation of relations."

Comments