Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis

Latest Articles


It's Hard to Help Kim Jong Il

A Japanese crackdown could test the loyalty of the resident Koreans who send millions of dollars every year to support North Korea

By Bertil Lintner/OSAKA

EVER SINCE NORTH KOREA began taking public steps towards developing nuclear weapons late last year, the idea of using United Nations-sponsored economic and trade sanctions to pressure Pyongyang has been a glimmer in the eyes of many Washington conservatives. But Japan has already begun its own subtle pressure by quietly clamping down on the resident Koreans who remit millions of dollars a year to the North Korean government and ship advanced technology to support the regime of its leader, Kim Jong Il.

Japan's efforts focus on the General Association of Korean Residents, or Chongryun, which groups ethnic Koreans in Japan who remain so loyal to Pyongyang that they consider themselves to be overseas nationals of North Korea. Chongryun, known as Chosen Soren in Japanese, holds seats in the North Korean legislature and officially represents its supporters in Japan.

The current campaign against North Korea began in April last year when Japanese authorities put pressure on the privately owned Ashikaga Bank to suspend remittances to North Korea. Ashikaga Bank was one of the few Japanese banks through which remittances to North Korea were possible, and the bank through which Chongryun primarily operated.

Next month the Japanese government is expected to begin strict surveillance of cargo transported to North Korea from Japan, according to Western diplomats in Japan and reported statements by the Japanese police. This transport is principally handled by a North Korean-operated passenger freighter, the Mangyongbong, which plies the route between Niigata in Japan and the North Korean port of Wonsan every two weeks and can accommodate 200 passengers and carry 1,000 tonnes of cargo.

Former Chongryun supporters assert that the ship is used to smuggle sophisticated electronic equipment, computer parts, software and machine tools which North Korea needs for its missile programmes.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department told reporters in January that the ship had been used to carry espionage orders to a North Korean agent in Japan who was affiliated with Chongryun. They also said the ship may have had a role in an assassination attempt in 1974 on the South Korean president, Park Chung Hee. Chongryun has consistently denied allegations of wrongdoing. Following the statements by the Tokyo police, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the ship should be watched closely "lest it be used for crime."

Japanese officials contacted for this article declined to comment on the activities of the Chongryun or on what is shipped to North Korea on the Mangyongbong. After two recent North Korean missile tests in the Sea of Japan, Japanese attitudes towards North Korea and the Chongryun group are bound to harden.

The Mangyongbong doesn't normally sail during the stormy winter months, but when regular trips begin in April, the Japanese are expected to begin closer scrutiny of what goes on board the ship, Western diplomats in Tokyo say. The sanctions being considered by the United States could include cutting off financial flows from Japan and going so far as intercepting ships believed to be carrying weapons out of North Korea.

An attempt by Koizumi to normalize relations with North Korea by paying an official visit to Pyongyang last September was immediately undone when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il admitted to the abductions of 13 Japanese nationals in the 1970s. The abductees had been used to train North Korean spies in Japanese language and culture. Eight of them were alleged to have died either of natural causes or by suicide; the five survivors were allowed to visit Japan, where they remain.

Not wanting to offend its former colonial subjects, the Japanese government has so far left Chongryun alone as long as it does not get involved in domestic politics. Strongly held ties to North or South Korea have shaped the identities of many ethnic Koreans in Japan for generations.

About one-third of the estimated 650,000-700,000 Koreans in Japan support Chongryun and Pyongyang in some way, according to Sonia Ryang, who grew up in a Chongryun community in Tokyo and is a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. The rest are either neutral or support Mindan, a rival pro-South Korea organization, Ryang says.

Ethnic Koreans have been subjected to attacks by Japanese individuals since Kim Jong Il's admission in September, according to Chongryun. Riot police have been stationed outside Chongryun's walled-in, eight-storey headquarters in downtown Tokyo to keep out outraged Japanese.

The organization's officials, who seem well aware of the difficulties they are facing, are responding to the pressure with a mixture of subterfuge and political manoeuvring. In a rare interview, Kum Ki Do, of Chongryun's international affairs department in Kyoto, confirmed that it has become much more difficult to send money to North Korea. "The window we had through the Ashikaga Bank is now closed," he says.


However, some former Chongryun supporters believe that the ban on remittances through the Ashikaga Bank has had little effect. "Now, people send money through Chinese banks in China, particularly in Macau. It doesn't go directly, but it gets there," says one former supporter. Some Chongryun supporters fear the worst for North Korea. "I'm worried about a war on the Korean peninsula because North Korea doesn't have the strength to resists a U.S. attack," says Kim Hyoen Il, a 23-year-old member of Chongryun's student organization.

In a move last October which seemed to be aimed at depoliticizing Chongryun in the eyes of the Japanese public, the organization's leadership decided to remove portraits of Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, from the 110 elementary and junior high schools which it runs. Chongryun will keep the portraits on the walls of its 30 higher-education institutions, including the Korean University in Tokyo, and in its own offices.

According to Kum, Chongryun has also moved closer to its former rival, the pro-South Korea Mindan organization, in order to create an "all-Korean" movement in Japan. On December 22 and 31 last year, 200 Koreans from both groups held rallies in Tokyo against the acquittal of two American soldiers by a U.S. military court on homicide charges over an accident in which two South Korean schoolgirls were killed. Cultural and sport exchanges between Mindan and Chongryun are also becoming common, Kum says.

Chongryun has always been the more active of the two groups, especially in the Osaka region, home to more than 170,000 ethnic Koreans. In the backstreets of Osaka's Higashinari ward and in Ikuno ward, where a vast Korean market stocks local goods alongside items imported from North Korea, people have rarely wavered in their support for Pyongyang--at least not until the abduction issue erupted last September. "Many are leaving the organization now," says a former Chongryun supporter. "Most are in a state of shock. For years, they believed the North's denials, and claimed that anything else was slander and propaganda. And then Kim Jong Il himself admitted that is was true."

Nevertheless, Chongryun remains a formidable organization which runs its own daily newspaper, Chosun Sinbo, football teams, youth leagues, credit institutes, a film company and import-export companies. It even provides match-making services for younger members.

Some say Chongryun is involved in much different activities. Its Tokyo headquarters, former Chongryun supporters say, houses a basement where the organization's bodyguards and special agents are given martial-arts training. Many of them belong to an underground outfit called Gakushu-gumi, or literally "the study group," which is made up of 5,000 supporters of Chongryun who are also cadres of the Korean Workers' Party, North Korea's ruling party. North Korea indirectly admitted that the activities of the Gakushu-gumi comprise a potential thorn in relations with Japan when Pyongyang, two weeks before Koizumi's visit, publicly ordered Chongryun's "informal study groups" to disband, though whether they have done so is uncertain.

Despite the revelations about the abductions and North Korea's missile tests, many in the Korean community in Japan remain staunchly loyal to Pyongyang. "If your father comes home drunk, he's still your father and you have to respect him," says Kim Hyoen Il of Chongryun's student organization. It is such loyalty that the North Korean regime is counting on for continued support.

* * *

Japan's North Koreans

In the 1920s and 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula, hundreds of thousands of Koreans were brought to Japan to work in factories, primarily in Osaka and Kobe. During World War II, even more Koreans were brought to replace Japanese workers as the war took Japan's own labour force to the battlefield. By the end of the war and Japan's withdrawal from Korea there were 2.4 million Koreans in Japan. But by 1950 rapid repatriation reduced the number to half a million.

While the first generation of Koreans in Japan were mainly day labourers, many in the second generation, with little chance of social and economic advancement within Japanese companies, started small businesses such as pachinko parlours and Korean restaurants. Many third- and fourth-generation Koreans have become even better educated, and a fair number of them have university degrees and work for major companies.

Politically, the Koreans in Japan have always been bitterly divided, with many holding strong sympathies for the northern regime, though the vast majority of Koreans in Japan come from the south of the Korean peninsula--97%, according to Sonia Ryang, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and author of a book on the group.

Chongryun, the association founded in 1955 that groups Koreans supporting Pyongyang, has provided many of them with a firm identity as "overseas nationals of North Korea." Until only a few years ago, Chongryun schools in Japan were even using the same text books as in North Korea.

By contrast the rival pro-South Korea association, Mindan, has had a much weaker profile. Before South Korea became democratic in the late 1980s, Mindan was itself divided between dissidents and supporters of the regime in Seoul.

The division among Koreans in Japan is not simply ideological: it's officially registered on their alien-registration cards. Under the category of "nationality," Japanese authorities label Koreans as either Chosen--from the North's name for Korea--or Kankoku, from the South Korean name, Hankuk.

For years, all Koreans in Japan were treated as "foreigners" and denied citizenship. It is now easier for Koreans in Japan to become Japanese citizens, but many Chongryun members have no interest in doing so, feeling it would deprive them of their national identity.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, March 27, 2003

Back to articles