Fulfilled in Jesus

Our pilgrimage with our Beloved in Japan -- Yoko & Ramone on the journey with Jesus!

Monday, December 13, 2004

"They Gave Me Courage"

Last night my wife Yoko and I stepped out of the rain in Honmachi for some mocha on our way to Woody Hut, the conversation cafe where I work Wednesday nights. As we stood outside folding up our umbrellas, through the glass we saw a foreigner speaking with two Japanese men, one older and one younger. Yoko recognized the older one right way, Mr. Kato. We’d seen him on TV... Mr. Goto (we call him GG), the owner of the conversation cafe, had sent us a link to a TV segment online, in which Mr. Kato was interviewed about his NGO’s efforts to help North Korean refugees. Mr. Kato is secretary-general of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR), a non-governmental organization based in Tokyo.

We went inside and ordered our coffee, wondering if we should go over and say hi. They seemed to be talking about something, so we decided not to interrupt and sat at a table not far away. I recognized the young Japanese man. His hair had grown since August, the last time I’d seen a photo of him in the news. Takayuki Noguchi. Imprisoned in China in December, 2003, Noguchi was finally released this last August. He looked healthy.

(Kato and others protest at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo for the release of Takayuki Noguchi, pictured in the smaller photo on the poster, March 29, 2004)

Yoko and I drank our coffee but were able to overhear a good part of their conversation about North Korea. Feeling bad about eavesdropping, we moved a little further away to a different table. I figured they might be having an interview. Mr. Kato got up to go throw away their cups and I met him at the trash bin, catching him off guard by saying his name and introducing myself. They soon left, and Yoko and I stayed for another ten minutes before leaving for the same place, Woody Hut.

GG had closed Woody Hut early to prepare for the event, a presentation on the North Korean refugee crisis. Takayuki Noguchi was last night’s special guest.

Kato-san began by speaking briefly about LFNKR, which helps North Korean refugees hiding in northern China by providing them with clothing and shelter. LFNKR also lobbies governments to grant North Korean escapees “refugee status” -- something they easily should qualify under international law and UN conventions, but that few governments are willing to declare because they want to avoid opening a diplomatic can of worms by confronting China and North Korea. There are no accurate numbers of how many NK refugees are hiding in China… some guesses put the number at around 100,000.

Kato-san handed it over to a slightly nervous-looking Noguchi. There were more people than expected that night. Noguchi began speaking in Japanese and then repeated the same part of the story in English a moment later.

(Takayuki Noguchi at Woody Hut in Osaka, December 12, 2004)

Last year Noguchi was told that a man and a woman had escaped from North Korea and wanted to return to Japan. Though they were ethnic Koreans, their families had originally lived in Japan. During the 60s and at other times, North Korea advertised itself as the Marxist paradise on earth, and many Koreans living in Japan and elsewhere moved to the North. Like the parents of Kang Chol-Hwan, these families quickly realized they had been duped, and that they could neither complain about nor leave the country that now was their home. Such was the case of the parents of the man and woman. Now the man and woman had escaped and were living in the car of a freight train. Noguchi went to help as he had done for others before.

The previous August of that year, Noguchi had successfully transported two other refugees to a third country, and now they are living in Japan. Noguchi had given that pair new clothes, since the clothes they wore from the North were obviously too ratty to blend in on the street in China. That pair had also been in China for some time, and so they had time to put on weight. Typically the refugees who cross into China are extremely thin and malnourished, and so are very noticeable walking among groups of normal, well-fed people. Noguchi brought cosmetics from Japan and when the pair applied them and wore the clothes he’d given them, they looked like normal Japanese tourists.

In December, with the new pair, however, things would be more difficult. They hadn’t spent much time in China and were still extremely skinny. Noguchi did the best he could in trying to help them appear more normal, and thought they had a chance. They traveled from Shenyang to Beijing, and from Beijing down to Nanning. He tried to plan the time so that they would arrive after dusk---when the stations tended to be very crowded and when the darkness could keep people from seeing the refugees clearly. But on December 10, their train arrived in Nanning too early, before dark, and the station was nearly empty. In hindsight, they believe Noguchi & the refugees must have been followed from the train station. (Ironically, later in prison Noguchi learned from an article that train trips in China are getting shorter and faster because of improving technology.)

He booked a room at a hotel that had separate buildings, so that the pair wouldn’t have to walk past the reception desk, where they might be asked for identification. Safe in their room they were able to relax: the pair of refugees, Noguchi, and their guide (a Chinese-Korean lady). The refugees talked happily about the new life they would find in Japan. They felt like they were already in Japan because they had met Noguchi.

Half an hour later there came a knock at the door. Unusual, no one knew they were there. Noguchi told the refugees to hide and had the guide go look through the peephole. She went to the door and looked. When she turned around she had lost all color in her face and said that the police had come. The male refugee said to Noguchi, “I’m already dead, I will be killed.”

As I listened to Noguchi speak I remembered "1984". You know, it’s one thing to read about this in an Orwell novel. It’s the stuff of fiction. But what the man standing only a few meters away told was real life, and the loss of two real lives.

The lady opened the door and the police came in. Right away one of the police began speaking to the refugees in Korean, and Noguchi was separated from the refugees. It would be the last time he saw them.

Noguchi began to tell the cover story. The elderly refugees were Noguchi’s aunt and uncle, Japanese tourists traveling together with a Chinese friend. On the train the passports of the couple were lost when their bag was stolen. But the police began asking details. The color of the bag. How large it was. Then they left to go ask the couple. It was only a matter of time before they found contradictions in their stories. Finally Noguchi had to admit that they were refugees from North Korea.

Noguchi was held for three days before being transferred to a local prison. During those days, when he wasn’t being questioned, his guards would watch TV in his room. Noguchi watched for the news intently, hoping that the NGO would contact the press since he hadn’t checked in for more than 24 hours. But the guards wanted to watch Hong Kong action films and Jackie Chan movies! Noguchi didn’t have much luck getting the remote from them. At night he was surprised when all of the police guarding him fell asleep. He tried to picture a map of the area inside his head as he thought of walking past them and escaping to Vietnam or Burma.

Had he gotten the remote he wouldn’t have heard any news, though. Indeed Kato-san and LFNKR knew something was wrong. They contacted the Japanese Foreign Ministry on December 11th, and on the 13th learned that the Chinese had informed them of Noguchi’s arrest. The Japanese government advised LFNKR to not give any press conferences or attract attention to Noguchi’s arrest. For one month LFNKR complied and worked with the Japanese Foreign Ministry and UNHCR, which only sent a representative to talk to the Chinese ambassador in Geneva. But the Japanese government agreed with the Chinese government that Noguchi had broken Chinese domestic laws and that they should hope for the Chinese government’s mercy. In January, LFNKR realized the Japanese government was not going to help protect their own citizen, and they went public on January 13th.

After admitting that the couple were North Korean refugees, Noguchi had tried telling the police that China had an obligation to obey international law, especially since it was signatory to the UN conventions on refugees, and could not return the refugees to North Korea knowing that they would face prison and possible execution. His examiner simply yawned. They didn’t care.

A week after his arrest, the Japanese consul met with Noguchi to try and help. He would visit Noguchi two more times later on, but by the last time his tone would change and he would be less friendly than the first visit. Noguchi said that finally the consul “told me to watch what I said.”

It was December and despite the blankets that covered him, Noguchi was freezing from the cold wind blowing through the bars of his cell. Noguchi had been put in a prison cell with eight inmates. Each day he hoped for his release and thought that the Japanese government must be negotiating with the Chinese government. “It was tough,” he said, “I felt guilty for leading the refugees into danger.” The inmates burned newspapers to try and keep warm. “We had cold showers,” he said, “But we didn’t take a shower every day.”

One day he saw his face in the stainless lid of a tea container. “I looked like death,” Noguchi confessed. His hopes plummeted and the other prisoners took to encouraging him. They really helped him a lot, and as he began to get to know and make friends with them, he started to see his situation even humorously... where else could he have the opportunity to meet such people? Among the inmates in his cell were a Vietnamese spy, a local party chief, a former party secretary, and some smugglers. “What do you smuggle?” he asked them. The answer? “Monkeys.” What for? “Eating.” But the concept of volunteerism puzzled them all, and they kept asking him how much he got paid. One day the Vietnamese spy took him aside into a corner when the other prisoners weren’t paying attention, “You can tell me, it’s okay, how much will they pay you when you get back?” Noguchi told us they simply couldn’t believe he was only trying to help the refugees.

By March the weather had grown warmer and, thanks to the other inmates, so had his spirits. By then the Chinese authorities were satisfied with the evidence they had gathered from him and began his prosecution. In the same month, when some Chinese patriots were arrested for landing on the disputed Senkaku islands (which Japan exercises authority over), Noguchi hoped that Japan might exchange them for him. But he was shocked and disappointed when the Japanese authorities released all seven of the Chinese. In May, Noguchi was tried and was sentenced to 8 months. Because he’d already been in prison for six months, he only had two months to go and could begin to count down the days until his release. But it was a bittersweet time, for he also learned that the two refugees had been quietly repatriated to North Korea in February.

It was the third time the male refugee had tried to escape from North Korea. Sources report that after repatriation he was most likely executed. As for the female refugee, LFNKR received information that she had been released from prison back into North Korean society six months after being repatriated. They heard that she had been given lighter treatment because she said she didn’t know what she was doing and had just been following what the NGO told her to do.

Both refugees had been born in Japan and still had some relatives there. A month after being imprisoned, the daughter of the female refugee, still in North Korea, telephoned her uncle in Japan and said she was in the hospital and needed help. While on the phone, “some guy” cut in and began telling the uncle that he should come to Pyongyang because the daughter was in the hospital. This was, as Noguchi said, the despicable way that the North Korean government asked for money. The “hospital” actually meant “prison”. LFNKR doesn’t know if the uncle sent money or not, but they learned later that the daughter had been released from prison in August. In North Korea, when a person commits a political crime—such as speaking negatively of the country’s leader or crossing into another country—that person’s family members and relatives are taken into political prison, because they believe the seed of counterrevolutionary desire is genetic.

For Noguchi, as his time for release approached, he began to think about what it meant to go home. “I realized that it is very precious to have a home country that I can return to, that there were people waiting there for me...”

(Noguchi meets his mother at Narita airport, August 9, 2004)

“...But North Korea, their home country punishes them when they return. Some day I really strongly feel that this kind of country should disappear from the earth.”

After Noguchi finished talking, we took a break before having time for questions and answers. My wife began playing with a little North Korean girl who had come to the meeting with her parents. I talked to Noguchi when he was free. I didn’t know what to say, and I don’t think there are words to express. I wanted him to know that I understood and that I couldn’t talk lightly about the fate of the refugees whom he cared about so deeply. I thanked him and told him that I know people in North Korea and in China will hear of what he did, and they will have hope knowing that somewhere, people do care about them.

The question and answer time began. Kato, Yamada and Noguchi took turns answering questions from all of us who came. Being American, I asked about reaction from the United States to Noguchi's arrest. Well, like most other countries, there was no official reaction. But Senator Brownback (R-Kansas) circulated and sent a petition for Noguchi’s release. Professors back at Noguchi's university in Arkansas said they were proud of him and hoped he could come speak at the university someday. Friends in New York and other places also supported him and protested on behalf of him and the refugees he tried to help. The UK took a great interest in helping Noguchi and LFNKR. The EU likewise helped apply pressure to China for Noguchi’s release, even bringing the subject up at an important trade conference with China.

The Japanese government, however, agreed with the Chinese government that Noguchi had done wrong, and they refused to work with LFNKR or give information about Noguchi’s well-being after LFNKR announced Noguchi’s arrest to the public. The Chinese government played the press situation very well throughout the entire ordeal. Not only did they succeed in silencing the Japanese government, but they also made sure to complain about “the NGO problem”, portraying the North Korean refugee crisis as something created by NGOs. The Chinese government made sure that Noguchi’s prison was not as bad as what the refugees were sent to (reports of Chinese prison for refugees are severe), so that when questioned afterwards Noguchi would have to report that his prison experience was “not that bad.” The facilities and food weren’t the worst, although Noguchi eventually gave up trying to pick the flies and bugs out of his soup and rice. The guards allowed them to buy Chinese beer, and the tofu was good. The meat was poor quality, the leftover parts of animals that no one would otherwise eat. Yet all this is beside the point. Noguchi lamented that focusing on Chinese prison conditions ignores the fact that he should not have been in prison in the first place, and neither should the refugees.

One Japanese man attending the meeting made the honest confession that he couldn’t really relate to the issue. Some other attendees answered that question by talking of how to get involved. I suggested that we take a look at the faces and get to know the people. Talk to Noguchi, Kato, and the North Korean family that was there that night. Realize that they are real people, not just a distant news headline. I think politicians are often able to make decisions because they don’t know the people involved. It isn’t their daughter in a prison camp. And often we do the same by only reading about these things in the newspaper watching reports on TV. But when you really look, when you talk to them, when you listen, when you watch the joy of their children playing, it becomes personal to you and you realize they are just like you. Later on the train ride home, I would have the chance to talk to him and tell him about the book I read and a little bit of how I came to care.

The father of the North Korean family began to talk. He told of what happens when you go back to North Korea: you are treated like cockroaches. You are stepped on. There are some fifty class levels in North Korean society and returnees are at the bottom, so you don't want anyone to know who you are. He also told us about their breakfast times when all they had to eat was some rice which they put into water. Because it had no taste and they wanted to be able to taste something with it, they dipped their spoons into a glass of salt water. Now he weighs 74 kg, but at one time he weight 51 kg. He said we can never understand in this country what it’s like to live in North Korea. Like the Chinese guards, he too could not understand why LFNKR people would volunteer to help them. When Mr. Kato came to help him, he couldn’t believe it. And when he came to Japan, he didn’t know what to do or how to handle the freedom he now had.

Noguchi was asked why he had begun working with LFNKR. “I used to backpack across countries, and went through some third world countries. I was amazed because I had a good passport, but African guys had to wait in long lines to go across borders. I began to think, what’s a border? Then in the early 90s I began to hear about North Koreans crossing the border without passports. And then even in China they weren’t safe. I felt like they deserved help. They gave me courage.”

The night came to a close. The meeting had run more than an hour past the intended finishing time. The North Korean family left and we applauded and thanked them. We thanked Noguchi, Kato and Yamada. "Gokurosamadeshita" to you all and God bless you.


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