From the End of Japanese Colonial Rule to the Splitting of the Korean Peninsula: Filmmaker Yang Yonghi Tackles Generational Trauma
As a North Korean anthem sounded, through bursts of confetti, he handed her a note before her ferry left Niigata Port: “Yonghi, listen to lots of music. Watch as many movies as you want. ”
It was 1972, a year after his parents – members of the Korean “Zainichi” ethnic community in Japan – had sent their other two sons in the same way, lured by the Kim regime’s promise of a socialist paradise with education, health care and jobs for all.
The boys never backed down.
“My parents dedicated their entire lives to an entity that came up with such a crazy project and forced them to sacrifice their own children for it,” Yang, now 57, said.
The trauma of being separated from her siblings reverberates through all of Osaka-born Yang’s films, which document her family’s suffering through the generations – from the end of Japanese colonial rule to the decades after the split of the Korean Peninsula.
His father was a prominent pro-North Korean activist in Osaka and had sent his sons to live there in the 1970s as part of a repatriation program organized by Pyongyang and Tokyo.
About 93,000 Japanese-based Koreans left for North Korea under this program between 1959 and 1984. Yang’s older brother was among 200 university students specially chosen to honor Kim Il Sung.
The regime’s promises came to almost nothing, but Zainichi’s arrivals were forced to stay. Their families could do little to bring them back.
Yang’s parents “had no choice after they had already sent their children away. To ensure the safety of the children (in North Korea), they could not leave the regime and had to become even more dedicated,” he said. she stated.
“I was so angry at the system that was holding my brothers hostage.”
Unlike her parents, Yang rebelled.
– ‘I wanted to be free’ – Yang said she was discriminated against in Japan – repeatedly turned down jobs and fired from a film project because of her Korean heritage.
She also had to struggle with pro-North Korean sentiment in her community.
Her father was a prominent figure in the Chongryon Organization – Pyongyang’s de facto embassy in Japan – which ran the university where she studied literature.
During her time at school, when students were asked to perform texts with the leader “The Literary Theories of Kim Jong Il”, Yang said that she once submitted a blank page.
And at home, where portraits of North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung side by side, she resented her parents for sending her brothers away.
“I wanted to be free,” Yang told AFP.
“I could have… pretended to be Japanese and avoided being honest about my father and brothers, acting like I didn’t recognize any issues.”
“But to really free myself, I had to face them all.”
After a failed marriage and three years spent as a teacher in a high school linked to Pyongyang, she left for New York to study documentary cinema.
And it was through the films that she began to unpack her family’s history.
Her first documentary, “Dear Pyongyang”, was released in 2005 to critical acclaim, including at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals.
It offered a rare, independent look inside North Korea, with footage from Yang’s camcorder as he travels to visit his brothers.
This infuriated the Chongryon, who demanded an apology.
By then, Yang had acquired South Korean citizenship, which prevented him from visiting his brothers again.
“It’s a huge award, but I have no regrets. At least I stayed true to my own desire: to make a movie and tell a story about my own family,” Yang explained.
– Desperate for a homeland – Yang’s final stop on this quest is the movie ‘Soup and Ideology,’ which is slated for theatrical release this year.
It focuses on his mother Kang Jung-hee, who loves her children fiercely but is also deeply loyal to Pyongyang.
For 45 years, she sent food, money and other goods to her sons in Pyongyang, including Seiko watches to exchange for cash.
Yang said his mother was often “abnormally and overly cheerful”, telling people that her sons are doing well in Pyongyang “thanks to the North Korean leadership”.
“But at home she was crying all alone,” the director said, especially after Kang’s eldest son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Yang said his mother would send all the medicine for the disease she could afford from Japan to North Korea, not knowing what he might need.
He died in 2009.
In her old age, she told Yang about another traumatic event – a bloody crackdown by South Korean forces on Jeju Island in 1947-1954 to crush an uprising.
As many as 30,000 people were killed, according to the National Archives of Korea.
They included Kang’s fiancée and relatives.
“My mother is someone who desperately wanted a homeland. She wanted to belong in Jeju but was forced to leave. She didn’t see her place in Japan,” Yang said.
“She was looking for a government she could trust and she believed in North Korea.”
This is where Yang’s two surviving brothers live.
Despite the difficulties she faces, Yang said she still wants to speak out.
“Since I was young, I was constantly told: ‘don’t say this, don’t say that, always say this'”, she told AFP.
“I realized I wanted to do it no matter the cost.”