Japanese repatriates visit burial site in Pyongyang

A group of former Japanese residents of what is now North Korea on Wednesday visited a site in the suburbs of Pyongyang which is believed to contain the remains of some 2,400 Japanese nationals.

The 11-member delegation of the Kita Izoku Renraku Kai group offered silent prayers for those buried at the so-called Ryongsan Cemetery, about 15 kilometers northwest from central Pyongyang.

The aim of the group is to retrieve the ashes of relatives who perished in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula around the end of World War II.

Jo Hui Sung, director of the Institute of History at North Korea's Academy of Social Sciences who leads research in the Japanese remains issue, said the bones of Japanese people were transferred to a hillside in a farming village from 1970 to 1971.

He added most of the bones were those of women and children who died of malnutrition or infectious diseases.

There are about 500 grass-covered earth mounds on the hillside, each of which accommodates four to five sets of remains. Before being transferred to the current location, the bones were moved in the mid-1950s within Pyongyang, Jo said.

Sanji Kitaoka, 72, from Shizuoka Prefecture, whose mother Fumiko and elder sister Michiko are believed to have been buried at the site, lit incense sticks in front of an earth mound and mourned for them.

"I'm glad to be able to come close to where my family is buried," he said. "While praying for my mother and sister, I told them, 'I'm doing fine.' All of my siblings had asked me to send their regards to them."

Although he was only 4 years old when his father, mother and elder sister died in October and December 1945 in Pyongyang after fleeing from Chongjin in the country's northeast following Japan's defeat in World War II, Kitaoka said he remembers carrying the bodies of his mother and sister with his siblings on a cart to a burial site.

There are also mounds for the remains of local residents on the hillside, but burial sites for Japanese can be identified as they have no tombstones and altars, Jo said.

The historian urged the Japanese government to retrieve the remains as soon as possible as the presence of the bones hampers Pyongyang's plan to transform the hill into an apple orchid.

Kitaoka also said he wants a memorial for the Japanese to be built on the hillside and the remains to be returned to Japan.

The visit by Japanese repatriates is the fifth of its kind since North Korea allowed a tour last August on humanitarian grounds to study burial sites.

The delegation is also scheduled to visit other burial sites in the east during their trip through next Tuesday, including Bupyong and Hamhung.

The purpose of the mission is to study sites believed to hold the remains of Japanese nationals in preparation for their possible repatriation to Japan.

About 34,600 Japanese are believed to have died of hunger and disease during the final phase of World War II in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, according to Japanese government data.

The remains of 13,000 people have already been repatriated to Japan.