Support for N. Korea slips in Japan community

USA Today
Paul Wiseman

For North Korea’s regime, the actions by tight-knit communist sympathizers living in Japan mean it is gradually losing its last international support group.

In one of the oddities left over from the Cold War, tens of thousands of ethnic Koreans living in Japan claim North Korean citizenship. For the past 50 years, even as Japan and South Korea emerged as wealthy democracies and a repressive North Korea slid into poverty, North Korean sympathizers in Japan have:

  • Operated dozens of schools across Japan teaching the Marxist-nationalist ideology of late North Korean strongman Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader.
  • Run what amounts to a North Korean embassy through the Tokyo headquarters of their General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryun. The organization issues visas to those who cross the Sea of Japan in ferries from the
  • Japanese port Niigata to visit relatives in North Korea — one of the Stalinist state’s few direct links to the outside world.
  • Helped finance the regime in Pyongyang through murky business dealings, including control of hundreds of pachinko pinball arcades across Japan.

But as Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prepares to make a historic visit to the North Korean capital Pyongyang Tuesday, Japan’s North Koreans are abandoning their anti-U.S., anti-Japanese, anti-South Korean communist ideology and their financial support for North Korea. “Our generation does not like our children to be taught politics,” says Jun Im Joung, 48, a North Korean shopkeeper in Tokyo who has put three children through Chongryun schools and attended them. (Related story: Newspaper: Leaders set to exchange overtures )

Descendants of laborers

An estimated 1 million ethnic Koreans live in Japan. Most of them are descendants of laborers forcibly brought to Japan before and during World War II and who decided to stay after the conflict ended. More than 600,000 of them keep North or South Korean citizenship. Japan doesn’t recognize North Korean citizenship. “We’re stateless,” says So Chung On, a Chongryun spokesman. The group claims more than 150,000 members, down from a peak of about 300,000 in the 1960s.

The vast majority of Japan’s North Koreans came from what became South Korea when the peninsula was partitioned after World War II, says Sonia Ryang, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University. So their support for the communist North over the U.S.-backed South was a choice, not a geographical circumstance.

The decision seems odd now. But in the tumultuous atmosphere after World War II, it made sense: Japan’s Koreans were mostly laborers and naturally sympathized with communists claiming to represent the working class. North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung’s ultimately ruinous policy of juche, or Korean self-reliance, appealed to expatriate Koreans’ fierce sense of patriotism and independence. Being North Korean became a defiant way to protect their Korean identity while living in a Japan where they faced discrimination.

North Korea, which outperformed the South economically into the 1960s, also ingratiated itself with the ethnic Korean community in Japan by supplying scholarships and books.

Koreans in Japan returned the favor, at one time funneling as much as $600 million a year to the impoverished North Korean regime from pachinko parlors. The financial maneuverings seem sometimes to run afoul of the law. Last December, a Chongryun official was arrested on charges of illegally diverting loans from a failed credit union to the organization and to his personal accounts. Chongryun spokesman So dismisses the charges as “politically influenced.”

At school, students learned an uncompromising brand of North Korean communism. “They used to teach all about the ‘U.S. imperialist wolf’ and ‘the South Korean puppet clique,’ ” says Johns Hopkins’ Ryang, herself a graduate of North Korean schools in Japan. Jun Im Joung remembers studying Russian during his years at a pro-Pyongyang high school in Tokyo three decades ago: “Our teachers told us the Soviet Union would control the world.”

Contributions wane

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and North Korea is a famine-ridden pariah state, the old rhetoric has lost its appeal. Financial contributions to the North Korean regime have dried up, victims of a decade of economic stagnation in Japan and diminishing enthusiasm for Pyongyang. Enrollment at Chongryun’s 124 schools is down.

Under pressure from parents, the schools scrubbed the communist propaganda out of textbooks a few years ago. Posters at the high school now ask students whether they’ve been practicing their English. This month, Chongryun elementary and middle schools started taking down classroom portraits of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

These days, the schools focus simply on trying to keep Korean language and culture alive in a community that becomes more Japanese every day.

At Tokyo’s Korean high school, the gymnasium is designed to resemble the turtle-shaped warships Korean Adm. Yi Soon Shin used to defeat the Japanese in the 16th century. Girls wear traditional Korean chogori dresses and dance traditional dances. Students practice traditional Korean instruments such as the changgo (drums) and choktae (flute). This month, the school sent a dance troupe to South Korea, an event that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

But preserving Korean culture is an uphill struggle. Anthropologist Jeffry Hester of Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka estimates that 80% of Japan’s ethnic Koreans who marry choose a non-Korean Japanese spouse; so they are rapidly being absorbed into mainstream society. Thousands more chose Japanese citizenship. Chongryun’s So sighs and says, “Generation after generation, second, third, fourth generation, cannot help being influenced by Japanese society.” Even some teachers at Chongryun schools — where speaking Japanese is banned in favor of Korean — admit that they speak Japanese when they get home.


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