Double life of a North Korean Japanese filmmaker

Double life of a North Korean Japanese filmmaker

How Yong-Hi Yang lives, and struggles, with her North Korean identity in Japan

Yong-Hi YangAcclaimed filmmaker Yong-Hi Yang still feels torn between her birth city of Pyongyang and current home Tokyo. It's one of the strangest facts about Japan: nobody knows exactly how many Japanese are of North Korean descent.

Many Japanese/North Koreans aren't willing to own up to their roots. They assume Japanese names, attend the Japanese school system and gain employment in Japanese companies, living out their lives as Japanese citizens.

Many "pure" Japanese families still run clandestine investigations on their childrens' prospective marriage partners. 

Corporate discrimination against Korean Japanese remain an ugly, festering problem and relations between Japan and North Korea aren't likely to turn even remotely friendly any time soon. 

So a second-generation North Korean Japanese woman like Yong-Hi Yang, 47, stands out as a testament to hope and change. 

Yang is a filmmaker, DJ and news commentator who studied at the Korea University in Tokyo and New York University, where she gained a master's in media studies.

Fluent in three languages, she's the sort of liberated, outspoken and independent woman that North Korean women -- and many Japanese for that matter -- can only dream of becoming. 

And unlike many of her compatriots, Yang has always been perfectly frank about her background. She based her famed documentary "Dear Pyongyang" (which picked up awards at such film festivals as Berlin and Sundance) on her dual identity and the fiery, rocky relationship with her dad.

Yang's father belonged to the GAKR (General Association of Korean Residents) -- an organization that ostensibly helps North Koreans in Japan with passport and travel problems, or acts as a pipeline between North Korea and their families in the archipelago.

But with a history stretching over five decades and wielding enormous political influence in both North Korea and Japan, the GAKR's public image isn't exactly benign. In Japan, many view the organization as downright sinister. 

Fatherly devotion

Yang's father was an influential member of the General Association of Korean Residents, a controversial organisation in Tokyo. Yang says her father always infuriated her. "But at the same time, it was impossible not to love him -- I can't get over these contradictory feelings, and maybe I never will," she says.

Yang had passionate political arguments with her dad over the years, but she spoke of how moved she was when "he admitted that there are abductions of Japanese citizens by the North Korean government.

"It was a big moment for me. My mother will never admit it, especially not in front of my camera." 

Abduction is the main issue of contention between the North Korean Japanese and the rest of Japan. Often the Japanese claim that negotiations must start with an admission of guilt by Pyongyang.

On the other hand, Yang points out that growing up as the daughter of a North Korean patriot was fraught with difficulties.

"But I was lucky," says Yang. "As the youngest child and the only girl, I was spared the fate of my three older brothers, which was to be shipped back to Pyongyang in their late teens."

Her father's decision to send her brothers back to the fatherland tore Yang's family apart. "My mother turned into a woman permanently obsessed with sending big boxes of provisions to her sons," says Yang.

"And when we finally got to visit them years later, all the household stuff that she sent over the years was carefully stored in their cupboards like prized possessions."

In the bottom of her heart, she never forgave her father for taking her brothers away, but she also understands the logic of the move.

"North Korean boys are up against a lot of social discrimination in Japan," she explains. "My father had the best intentions, but he was also hopelessly misguided."

Her father had to live with the consequences of his mistakes -- never seeing his sons again and the knowledge that North Korea was far from the rosy paradise of his vision -- and died several years ago, steeped in regret.

Family lost, but loved

Yang kisses her niece, Sona, during one of her visits to Pyongyang before being banned from North Korea.Yang attended Korean School in Japan, so she and her classmates crossed the 38th parallel into the "glorious fatherland" as part of a school trip.

Intrigued by what she saw there and eager to be reunited with her brothers, Yang returned to North Korea several times, and got to know an adorable niece named Sona.

Her latest film, "Sona, the Other Myself," is a tribute to the times Yang spent with her family in North Korea, and lingers with loving attention over Sona's guileless infant-hood followed by a no-choice induction into the rigidly disciplinarian North Korean educational system.

Yang highlights the innocence of her niece in the brief period before school changed her into a babbler of party line rhetoric and songs to celebrate the glory of "our father."

It's clear though, that Sona is well aware of what she's doing, and not just obediently spitting out what she's been fed. Yang says: "It's a survival tactic more than anything else. North Korean kids learn very early that rebellion will get them nowhere, and will get their parents in trouble.

"I know the feeling well. In many ways, I identify with Sona -- we both struggle with our dual identities but we also know how to live with them."

Yang went back and forth between Tokyo and Pyongyang with her camera, first to shoot "Dear Pyongyang" and then to concentrate on "Sona," before she was officially banned from entering North Korea in 2006. That was the last time she saw her niece.

"Part of me is still in Pyongyang," says Yang. "It's a feeling that transcends politics and its consequences. I'm there, because my brothers and their families are there.

"There's just no other way to describe it. But a huge part of me is Japanese. This is where I return to, and manage the balance of politics and life and be myself -- if only for a brief spell."