Kim Is Squeezed as North Koreans in Japan Switch Citizenship

Hideko Takayama

Kim Jong Il no longer supports the government of North Korea.

Kim is a 66-year-old businessman who owns a shoe factory in Kobe, Japan. In 1997, he resolved to switch his citizenship to South Korea from North Korea after deciding that “I could no longer support a government that allowed children to starve to death.”

Since then, thousands of North Korean residents in Japan have made the same decision. And that is bad news for the other Kim Jong Il — the one, no relation to the businessman, who has ruled North Korea since 1994.

For the last four decades, Japan’s North Korean residents have sent billions of yen in money and goods back home to their relatives and the Pyongyang regime. As more and more of them switch their allegiance to South Korea, they are choking off the flow of resources to an isolated and impoverished country already coping with trade sanctions.

While there is no way of knowing exactly how much they have sent, Katsumi Sato, director of the Modern Korea Institute in Tokyo, estimated that in the early 1990s, the annual total was some 60 billion yen ($600 million) in money and supplies.

“The cash and goods sent from Japan in the late 1980s were bigger than their national budget,” Sato said. “It was North Korea’s lifeline.”

Forced Labor

Japan was home to more than 600,000 Koreans in the 1970s, according to Japanese government figures. Roughly 330,000 were loyal to the South and 280,000 supported the North. They were the descendants of forced laborers Japan brought back from the peninsula during the era of colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, or Koreans who came to Japan looking for work.

South Korean residents now number about 400,000, according to the Korean Residents Union, a pro-South group. North Koreans are estimated at less than 50,000. The Chosensoren, an organization founded in 1955 to represent the interests of North Koreans who live in Japan, doesn’t disclose how many members it has.

One wave of North Koreans switched allegiance in the mid- 1990s after visiting their relatives and witnessing their suffering as a result of the famines that killed as many as 3 million people. Hundreds more switched when North Korea’s Workers Party secretary Hwang Jang Yop defected to South Korea in February 1997 and openly criticized Kim’s regime.

Demographic Forces

The shift reflects demographic as well as political forces. Older North Koreans are dying; some younger ones are becoming naturalized Japanese citizens. Other younger residents have fewer direct ties with their North Korean relatives and find other ways to spend their money.

One 27-year-old computer programmer dreamed of a honeymoon in Italy, then he hit a snag: He needed a fistful of time- consuming approvals and permits to travel. So he became a South Korean and heads to Italy this summer. He asked that his name not be used because he still has some loyalty to North Korea and feels uncomfortable about the switch.

Japan’s decade of recessions and slow growth has also taken a toll on the flow of cash and supplies sent to the homeland. Much of the money has come from North Korean residents running pachinko gambling halls, an industry with annual sales of 28 trillion yen ($231 billion), according to the Japan Productivity Center for Socio-Economic Development. But even these popular parlors have felt a financial pinch.

Seeking Protection

In April, a pachinko chain owned by a former North Korean resident and known as Daiei — no relation to Kobe-based retailer Daiei Inc. — filed with the Tokyo District Court for protection from creditors under the Civil Rehabilitation Law.

“With the slump in Japan’s economy, many North Koreans here lost their businesses,” Kazuhiro Kobayashi, who wrote “Kim Jong Il’s Big Laugh” and other works on North Korea, said in an interview. “I believe the amount of funds flowing to the North from Japan is less than a twentieth of what it was.”

One sign of North Korea’s woes: Last week, the Tokyo District Court ordered the Chosensoren to pay 62.7 billion yen to cover unpaid debt or face the seizure of its headquarters in lieu of payment.

In the past, the Chosensoren might have collected money from North Korean residents in such a situation. That’s now much more difficult, not only because of the North Korean business failures, but also because many residents criticize the organization for serving as a watchdog or even a branch office of the government in Pyongyang.

Medical Supplies

North Korea has also found it increasingly difficult to transport cash, medical supplies, clothing and other goods from its residents in Japan.

In the past, most of this cargo would travel on the North Korean vessel Mangyonbong, which docked on Japan’s northwestern coast. The ship also carried 90 percent of the parts for North Korean missiles, according to testimony in 2003 before a U.S. Senate subcommittee by a North Korean engineer who defected.

After North Korea test-fired several missiles over the Sea of Japan in July 2006, Japan banned the Mangyonbong from its ports. It banned all other North Korean ships after the underground nuclear test last October, as part of its economic sanctions.

The flow of North Koreans changing citizenship shows no sign of abating. In Tokyo alone, residents have been switching at a rate of roughly 100 a month since 2006, according to statistics from the South Korean consulate in Tokyo. In February 2007, the latest month available, 120 switched.

For Bae Soo Hong, the 46-year-old president of a construction company near Osaka, it was Kim Jong Il — the ruler, not the businessman — who made him decide to change.

When Kim acknowledged during a 2002 meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that North Korea had abducted Japanese citizens, “I knew it was time,” Bae said. He became a South Korean citizen this month.


Comments are closed.