Flipping through a copy of a recently obtained Korean history textbook used in pro-Pyongyang junior high schools in Japan, journalist Ryo Hagiwara points his finger to a section describing how North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, and his Korean People’s Revolutionary Army defeated the Japanese occupation forces in 1945 and drove them off the Korean Peninsula.
“Well, this reads as if Kim and his army single-handedly liberated the North, but this is not true. It’s a known historical fact that Kim was an officer of the Soviet army’s 88th Brigade at the time,” Hagiwara said.
According to outside historians, the KPRA was a North Korean propaganda term for what was actually the Second Army Corps of a Chinese communist-led force that Kim was a part of during the 1930s and early 1940s before he joined the Soviet army.
“It’s as if students are studying Kim’s biography, not real history,” Hagiwara said, explaining that out of the textbook’s 119 pages, 62 are dedicated to Kim Il Sung and his family.
The expert on North Korea is heading a group translating the textbook into Japanese to highlight its content for the Japanese public. He expects the group’s version to be published later this month.
Hagiwara is a proponent of abolishing all subsidies for these schools, which he claims are giving students distorted history lessons that glorify and instill loyalty to Kim Jong Il’s hermit regime, and have strong ties with an organization with direct links to the dictatorship — Chongryon, the Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
It appears his argument has been gaining ground in recent months following North Korea’s bombing of a South Korean island in November, which prompted the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to temporarily freeze procedures for including pro-Pyongyang schools in its high school tuition waiver program.
Under a law that took effect last April, students at public high schools are exempt from paying tuition. Private schools and other schools equivalent to high schools receive between ¥118,800 to ¥237,600 per student annually, depending on their household income.
Foreign schools and international schools are eligible for the tuition waiver program if they are considered equivalent to Japanese high schools after checks with their home countries, or if their curricula are accredited by international organizations.
But while the DPJ initially planned on including the pro-Pyongyang high schools, the increased tensions in the region in recent months have led Prime Minister Naoto Kan to apply the brakes.
Making things worse for these schools, the increased publicity has prompted several municipalities to review the annual grants they have been doling out to them for decades.
Reports from the education ministry and the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea (NARKN) show that 27 prefectures have been handing out a total of around ¥800 million a year to pro-Pyongyang schools.
Based on the schools’ enrollment, they would get additional funding of around ¥200 million under the central government’s high school tuition waiver program.
According to the education ministry, 73 pro-Pyongyang schools with an estimated 8,300 students were operating in Japan as of 2009. Of these, 10 were high schools with around 1,800 students in total.
In late January, Osaka Prefecture decided against distributing the ¥200 million in subsidies it has budgeted for fiscal 2011 for the 10 pro-Pyongyang schools within its jurisdiction.
Osaka, which has been providing financial aid to pro-Pyongyang schools since 1974, cited the schools’ reluctance to respond to guidelines the prefecture had set under Gov. Toru Hashimoto as the reason behind the decision. The guidelines include severing ties with Chongryon and removing photographs of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from classrooms.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which has been handing out approximately ¥24 million a year to 10 pro-Pyongyang schools, has also suspended grants for fiscal 2011.
“Municipal subsidies to pro-Pyongyang schools have been handed out for decades without ever being widely reported, but the controversy over the DPJ’s tuition waiver program dragged it into the spotlight,” said Ryuichiro Hirata, chief executive of NARKN, a nationwide nonprofit organization working to secure the return of people abducted by the North.
Hirata said history textbooks used in pro-Pyongyang schools nationwide are edited and carefully checked in Pyongyang, and he believes Japan would send the North the wrong message if it hands money to its schools while issuing various other sanctions.
According to “Modern Korean History — Level 3,” used in pro-Pyongyang high schools and translated into Japanese and published last year by Hagiwara and his organization, the Association of Experts Against Spending Tax Money on Pro-Pyongyang High Schools, South Korea and the United States were responsible for starting the Korean War.
This claim is contrary to common knowledge that the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950 was the direct catalyst.
The textbook also states that the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 by two North Korean agents, which killed 115 people, was a conspiracy hatched in South Korea to help Roh Tae Woo win the presidential election.
Lee Young Hwa, an economics professor at Kansai University and a North Korea expert, said it is fundamentally wrong that subsidies are being given to pro-Pyongyang schools, which operate under the guidance of Kim Jong Il’s Korean Workers’ Party.
“Unless Japan is a dictatorship, it should not be spending public money to fund schools operated by the KWP,” Lee said, arguing that such schools should only be allowed to continue operations if they severe ties with the North and operate under the principles of democracy.
But there are many who oppose cutting off grants to such schools because of diplomatic tension, arguing it would violate the children’s right to an education and could foster ethnic discrimination.
Pro-Pyongyang schools have been operating in Japan since the 1950s by Koreans who remained here after being conscripted by the Japanese military during the war, or who came here to work or were brought over for forced labor.
Lee Ji Seon, a 27-year-old ethnic Korean resident of Japan, received his elementary, junior high and high school education at pro-Pyongyang schools in Shizuoka and Aichi prefectures. He now works at a Japanese television station after attending Beijing University and studying in the U.S.
Lee said he believes a healthy society should guarantee freedom of thought and belief, and cutting off subsidies to pro-Pyongyang schools would deprive children of their right to an education.
“What would these children think in the future about Japanese society if they are excluded” from receiving grants, Lee said.
He said that during Korean history lessons, he studied Kim Il Sung’s biography and his battle against the Japanese occupation forces, but said he didn’t feel pressured to assume loyalty to Pyongyang, nor did he feel “brainwashed,” as Hiroshi Nakai, former minister in charge of the North Korean abduction issue, once asserted.
“But what’s notable is that many classes were taught in Korean, aimed at nurturing ethnic consciousness,” he said, claiming that world and Japanese history classes were taught free of any propaganda.
Park Il, an economics professor at Osaka City University’s graduate school, is critical of Japan for its indifference toward international schools in general, and said it is “unbelievable” that municipalities such as Osaka are trying to meddle with the content of textbooks used in pro-Pyongyang schools.
“It’s like overseas Japanese schools being ordered by the respective local governments to revise sections in textbooks that mention the Imperial system,” he said.
“Furthermore, North Korea’s bombing of Yeonpyeong Island is unrelated to students studying in pro-Pyongyang schools — I believe it’s outrageous that public support of education could be cut off due to political friction,” he said.
With the March 31 end of fiscal 2010 and the deadline for granting subsidies for schools approaching, it appears certain the debate will intensify in the weeks to come.
Kim Myung Soo, a sociology professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, said it is likely pro-Pyongyang schools will sue the government if the subsidies for fiscal 2010 aren’t distributed.
Kim, who attended a pro-Pyongyang elementary school in Fukuoka Prefecture before switching over to a Japanese school, said it is essential that Japan work toward fighting racial discrimination and protecting foreign residents and minorities, rather than fostering ethnic divides.
“The government is acting emotionally and based on anti-North Korean sentiment. Cutting off subsidies will only send out the message that Japan doesn’t care about human rights,” he said.