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Students convenient proxies in LDP’s Pyongyang angst

by Philip Brasor

Since returning to power late last year, the Liberal Democratic Party has said it will dismantle some of the social programs the Democratic Party of Japan implemented during its short reign.

Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura announced at the end of January that he will introduce a new shogakkin system for high school and university students from low-income families. Shogakkin is usually translated as “scholarship,” but students in Japan who receive them have to pay them back. The new system will distribute grants, but its main purpose is to upend the April 2010 DPJ law that made all public high schools tuition-free, since the scholarship scheme is tied to a proposed income-based graduated tuition program. Practically everyone in Japan goes to high school but it is not compulsory, so the LDP doesn’t think the government should have to pay for it. Still, the tuition waiver is popular, so if the LDP is going to weaken it the government has to compensate somehow, otherwise it will look as if it is discriminating against a certain class of children for the sake of cutting the budget.

However, the LDP is clearly discriminating against one group of children as part of its economic sanctions against North Korea. Shortly after assuming his post in December, Shimomura announced that the government would not extend the DPJ tuition waiver program to schools affiliated with the General Association of Korean Residents, or Chongryon, the de facto representative of Pyongyang in Japan since Tokyo has no diplomatic relations with North Korea. Actually, the DPJ hadn’t approved Chongryon schools for the waiver, either. It was studying their curricula to ascertain if they adhered to the same educational guidelines as Japanese schools do, but after North Korea attacked a South Korean island in November 2010, killing two South Korean soldiers, the DPJ effectively shelved the study, so students of Chongryon high schools still have to pay tuition while those attending other international schools don’t. All Shimomura’s announcement did was make the exclusion explicit. He said that because of these schools’ relationship to Chongryon, it is difficult to convince the Japanese public that their students should qualify for the tuition waiver given that “there has been no progress” in resolving the North Korean abduction issue.

In a recent editorial, the Kochi Shimbun describes Shimomura’s rationale as a dodge. Pointing out that there is no relationship between the issue of Chongryon schools receiving government subsidies and North Korea’s abduction of Japanese nationals in the 70s and 80s, the newspaper accuses the ruling party of expressing its enmity toward people with North Korean passports by passing the buck to a vague, faceless citizenry. Shimomura said the decision to withhold subsidies was based on 30,000 comments his ministry received from average people. According to Tokyo Shimbun, 15,846 said that Chongryon schools should not receive the subsidy, while 14,164 said they should. Does a 53 percent majority represent the will of the people? And since this issue applies to children’s basic education, which is supposedly guaranteed by the constitution, should it?

The LDP’s decision to deny Chongryon schools the tuition waiver has encouraged local governments to follow suit. All educational institutions in Japan, whether public or private, Japanese or international, receive financial support from local governments. Since December, Saitama, Kanagawa, Hiroshima and other prefectures have announced that they plan to halt subsidies to Chongryon schools. Takao Abe, the mayor of Kawasaki, which is home to a large Korean population, said he plans to reserve part of the Chongryon subsidy to buy books written by relatives of abductees. “We want students of North Korean schools to take part in a campaign to save abductees,” he said at a news conference on Feb. 19. Even Shigeru Yokota, whose book about his abducted daughter Megumi is one of the texts Abe wants the students to read, found the plan problematic, telling Tokyo Shimbun that it is “strange” that officials think it necessary to “discriminate against Koreans who reside in Japan legally.” And while he wants Chongryon students to learn about the abduction issue, “it’s not right to hold them responsible.”

But even Mayor Abe, who believes that discontinuing all support for Chongryon schools is “extreme,” isn’t as assertive in his antipathy as the governor of Kanagawa Prefecture, who said that the main purpose of denying the public funds is to make the students of North Korean schools “understand why they aren’t getting the money”; in other words, to make them feel bad about something they have no control over. As one law professor told Tokyo Shimbun, government officials are using the tuition waiver to show the public that they are doing something about the abductions, the nuclear weapons tests and the missile launches.

The LDP claims these schools have become local agencies of Pyongyang and spread North Korean propaganda, which is what the DPJ study was supposed to determine. Since that study was never completed, these charges are based on hearsay and conjecture, but even if the Chongryon schools do instill the Kim Jong Un doctrine in students there is nothing illegal about it, and the United Nations has repeatedly voiced concern over the discriminatory nature of the anti-Chongryon policy. Tokyo Shimbun reports that many North Korean schools have reviewed their curricula in recent years and some hold classes about the abduction issue. One participates in a successful community exchange program that was instigated by Japanese residents.

These efforts have been conveniently ignored by officials and the mainstream media, which always fall back on specious claims of public opinion to support their stance, but as with its anti-DPJ measures the LDP’s angst is inspired by politics. The government can’t seem to do anything about that stubbornly stupid regime in Pyongyang, so they take their frustrations out on the most vulnerable, most convenient proxies they can find.