Korean A-bomb survivors in Japan travel home after first invitation from South Korea’s government—Report covers lives of hardship and sacrifice in foreign land

Future-oriented approach for Japan–South Korea relations should lead to “world without nuclear weapons”

by Kana Kobayashi, Staff Writer

South Korean A-bomb survivors came to Japan under Japan’s colonial rule of Korea and experienced the atomic bombing in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. In addition to suffering aftereffects from the bombings, they faced the hardships of poverty and discrimination, and for a long time were not recognized by their own country. This fall, however, the survivors left from Hiroshima headed back to their homeland based on a first-ever invitation from the South Korean government. To consider the significance of the historic invitation, the Chugoku Shimbun accompanied the group of survivors, whose lives have been at the mercy of history.

Based on the wishes of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, 38 South Korean A-bomb survivors, including second-generation survivors, were invited to visit South Korea from September 28 to October 3, during that country’s autumnal “Chuseok” holiday period. Akin to Japan’s Obon holidays in summer, it is an important seasonal event during which South Koreans gather with family and relatives to pray for their ancestors. The South Korean government appears to have invited the survivors with consideration to the holiday, which has special meaning for the nation.

However, 78 years after the atomic bombing, many of the Korean survivors have already died after living lives marked by hardship. Some of the survivors, including those in Nagasaki, were not able to join the visit because of old age and poor health.

All of the survivors able to make the visit to South Korea were elderly. Upon their arrival at Incheon International Airport, near Seoul, some survivors had difficulties walking on their own. One survivor in a wheelchair was pushed by Lee Ki-cheol, head of the South Korean government's Overseas Koreans Agency who had welcomed them at the airport. When accompanying them, this staff writer constantly felt the survivors made the difficult trip to South Korea despite their age in an ardent desire to meet the president in their ancestral homeland.

President Yoon shows empathy for survivors

In the morning on the second day of their visit, the survivors clad in neat suits or colorful green or purple chimageogori (traditional Korean dress) rode on a bus from their hotel.

This day, the group paid a visit to the Blue House, the former South Korean presidential mansion. They met with Mr. Yoon over lunch for about two hours. Mr. Yoon showed empathy for the group. “I assume you experienced much sorrow and hardship due to your experience in the atomic bombing while living in a foreign land during our colonized period,” he said. The group was pleased by Mr. Yoon’s words, which they implied made them feel cared for.

“It felt as if the president squeezed my hands back,” remarked Jo Insun, 87, a resident of Hiroshima’s Asakita Ward, showing her excitement after she shook hands with Mr. Yoon. Ms. Jo was exposed to A-bomb radiation at the age of nine when she entered the city soon after the bombing. During the period of hardship and chaos after Japan’s defeat in the war, she was unable to follow her father and older brother on their return to Korea, staying in Japan instead with her mother and six sisters. Unable to attend school, she peddled candy to make a living. She often faced discrimination and harsh words. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she remembered the long journey she had made.

The survivors experienced the atomic bombing after coming to Japan from the Korean Peninsula because they had been mobilized or drafted under Japan’s colonial rule or were suffering financial hardship. Like Ms. Jo, some stayed in Japan, while others returned to Korea. A-bomb survivors living in South Korea were also invited to the luncheon gathering.

Sim Jintae, 80, head of the Hapcheon branch of the South Korean Atomic Bomb Sufferers Association, was emotional. “We are truly grateful to have been invited together with our compatriots from Japan,” said Mr. Sim.

The survivors in South Korea lived grueling lives after their return home. They experienced the Korean War starting in 1950. While suffering the aftereffects of the atomic bombing and poverty, they faced discrimination in South Korea and were for a long time cut off from aid provided by the Japanese government. Not a small number of survivors died without access to proper medical care.

Wall built over years

The recent visit to South Korea also served as a good opportunity to promote exchange between Korean survivors in Japan and South Korea, who had been separated by distance over a long period. On the day prior to the group’s return back to Hiroshima, a dinner party was held by the South Korean government and the Overseas Koreans Agency in Seoul and attended by both the Korean A-bomb survivors living in Japan and South Korea. While glad to share with each other their long experience of hardship and suffering, they sometimes appeared awkward, with the language barrier that had developed over the years preventing meaningful conversation. It was a small glimpse of history, which required A-bomb survivors with the same homeland living apart, separated by the sea.

Through the invitation, the South Korean government demonstrated its positive attitude toward promotion of friendship between Japan and South Korea and empathy for the A-bomb survivors. But, against the backdrop of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile development initiatives, the nation has also strengthened its reliance on the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. In July, the first meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG), a group designed to deliberate on nuclear issues with the United States, took place in Seoul. The U.S. military’s strategic nuclear submarines, capable of launching nuclear missiles, made port at that time in the city of Busan. When a joint statement after the meeting was released by Japan, the United States, and South Korea in August, the document limited the concept of complete denuclearization to “North Korea” versus the conventional scope of “the Korean Peninsula,” seemingly in deference to the Yoon administration.

Based on such a situation, Kwon Joon-oh, 74, chair of the Committee Seeking Measures for the Korean A-bomb Victims who lives in Hiroshima’s Nishi Ward, spoke on behalf of the other survivors when he said to Mr. Yoon, “Nuclear weapons are a nightmare. For us, the situation is sad and painful.”

Mr. Yoon told the A-bomb survivor group that he would develop relations between South Korea and Japan in an approach with an eye to the future. As indicated in his comment, the invitation to return to South Korea appears to be one of the steps aimed at improving the Japan–South Korea relationship. However, will the future-oriented perspective expressed by the Korean government actually lead to “a world without nuclear weapons” as advocated by A-bomb survivors? Will it be used to seriously confront the suffering of the survivors and their history of sacrifice? The same question can also be asked of the Japanese government.


Overseas Koreans Agency
Established by the South Korean government in June of this year to strengthen support for South Korean nationals living overseas, the agency is responsible for policies involving South Korean nationals living overseas, who had been handled separately by that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government organizations. The South Korean government defines South Koreans permanently living overseas and people who are not South Korean nationals but deemed to be of Korean ethnic descent as “Overseas Koreans.” There are between 7.3 and 7.5 million such overseas Koreans around the world, with estimates showing that about 800,000 live in Japan.

(Originally published on October 16, 2023)