With many books and countless articles published, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, historian and professor of Japanese history at Australian National University College of Asia and the Pacific, has proven herself an adept, thorough and skilled researcher. Her body of work ranges from Japanese technological and economic growth to human rights and multiculturalism in the Far East region. Her most recent book, Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War, focuses specifically on the little-researched mass migration of Zainichi Koreans (ethnic Koreans in Japan) from Japan to North Korea during the Cold War Era. Although a topic that Morris-Suzuki “embarked on…almost by chance,” the historian exposes a complex interplay between major actors and events within the Cold War setting, which ultimately changed the lives—and not necessarily for the better—of thousands of Zainichi Koreans (Morris-Suzuki 11). She further invites the reader to join her in the research process itself by using her own chronological research discoveries as jumping off points for telling the migration story. As a result, the book is not only a gem in that it introduces a little-known mass migration to the reader, but also offers insight into the lengths a historian must go to gather information and data.
Morris-Suzuki asks, “What happens when the small stories of personal lives and the grand stories of global politics intersect?” (13). This question alone offers the reader not only a reason for Morris-Suzuki’s interest in the topic, but provides foreshadowing that the historian will be discussing more than just the dry, chronological facts leading up to the migration. She does not disappoint. Throughout the course of the book, Morris-Suzuki scatters real life accounts from surviving individuals, both of Korean and Japanese decent (the former married into Korean families), who either made the full journey or who had, at the last moment, been unable to board the boat to North Korea. While the historian was unable to secure many interviews with survivors due to her inability to access the majority located within the isolated North Korean state, the interviews she did secure add a human dimension to the Cold War and domestic agendas of varying global and state actors.
Piecing together the nature of these agendas proved to be no easy task. Morris-Suzuki’s interest in the topic emerged right around the time that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had been an active, albeit reluctant player in the movement of the Zainichi Koreans, was declassifying its Cold War documentation and correspondence. Morris-Suzuki thus used these documents as the starting point for the research that would eventually span multiple archives, libraries and institutions located in Switzerland, Japan, South Korea and Australia. While the Australian historian would also visit North Korea, she only visited the reclusive state to catch a glimpse of the country to which the Zainichi Koreans had migrated, many of whom, to that point, had never set foot outside Japan.
It is this country (Japan) and the institutions within it that Morris-Suzuki points to as the primary instigators in the movement of Zainichi Koreans. The Japanese government and the Japanese Red Cross Society initially portrayed the proposed migration as humanitarian and the Zainichi Koreans as wanting to return in order to gain ICRC support. However, this portrayal— a tactic that has been in common use since the establishment of a new liberal world order under the auspices of the United Nations—was a cover for a more selfish, state-oriented and xenophobic agenda to move as many Koreans out of Japan as possible. The Japanese empire was gone and the Japanese government no longer wanted anything to do with its former citizens, turned aliens on Japanese soil.
Cold War ideologies and loyalties in the region also played key roles. With the 38th parallel clearly dividing the Korean peninsula in two, the North Korean government falsely portrayed its state as a communist utopia in which the government would provide housing and work for all Zainichi Koreans, regardless as to where on the peninsula they were originally from. As its mouthpiece, it utilized Chrongryun, the North Korean-sympathetic Zainichi Korean organization in Japan. The South Korean government, in turn, ravaged by poverty and unemployment, had no interest in a mass migration to South Korean territory. Morris-Suzuki expertly weaves these push-pull factors, combined with the larger global culture of the time, into a dynamic portrayal of the complicated process leading up to the first boatload of Zainichi Koreans to be sent from Japan to North Korea.
While eye opening and as an initial foray into the topic, Exodus to North Korea is far from comprehensive. Morris-Suzuki expertly introduces the topic to the reader, but, in true historian and professor fashion, she recognizes that there are places in her research that can be developed, leaving the last chapter to suggest future research foci. For those readers interested in global and cold war politics, international relations, Japanese history, international law and more, this book not only provides a basis for future research, but provides an introduction to an event in history that has long been forgotten. Without Morris-Suzuki’s interest in the topic, it is quite possible that the migration would not have been pieced together for another fifty years, when all survivors had long passed, and this, in itself, would have been a tragedy.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. Print.
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