PYONGYANG – A group of Japanese college students made a rare visit to Pyongyang in late August — just before North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9 — for talks on war and peace with local students.
But three days of social exchanges and intense discussions left the groups at odds on issues such as how best to achieve world peace and whether nuclear disarmament is feasible.
“Both of us hope for peace, but the prospects we see and the means by which we seek to achieve peace are completely different,” said participant Mirei Jinguji, 23, a senior at the University of Tokyo.
“I recognized the difficulty of understanding each other at a fundamental level,” she said. “But we will keep doing what we believe we can do, instead of feeling despair and turning our backs on the issue.”
The student-to-student program was initiated in 2012 by a group of Japanese nongovernmental organizations. Among them was Tokyo-based Relief Campaign Committee for Children, Japan, which conducts cultural exchanges.
Participants in the annual program have gradually become able to take up political issues over the years, organizers said, despite the isolated communist regime’s strict controls on speech.
Jinguji was one of eight Japanese students who took part in this year’s program. The 11 North Koreans were all in their early 20s and majoring in Japanese language at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.
During the three-day program, the students had chances to chat about their boyfriends and girlfriends and play smartphone games and snap photos together.
While these are familiar activities for young people in Japan, once they began discussing nuclear weapons and missiles, the conversations took on a more serious tone.
“To protect our country from U.S. threats, we definitely need nuclear weapons,” Cho Gyong A told Kosei Horikawa, 20, a sophomore at Hiroshima City University, on their way back from a sightseeing visit.
Cho, a final-year student at the five-year university in Pyongyang, said she wanted to learn more about Hiroshima after watching a Japanese documentary about atomic bombing victims in the city and reading the acclaimed manga series “Barefoot Gen,” the story of a Hiroshima boy who survived the devastation.
Horikawa, a Hiroshima native, however, offered up his own family’s experience of the atomic bomb. He told Cho of his great-grandfather’s experience on Aug. 6, 1945 — the day the bomb dropped.
While acknowledging that the bombing of Hiroshima was “terrifying,” Cho insisted on the need for nuclear arms in North Korea.
“We don’t want to make Pyongyang another Hiroshima and that is why we need a nuclear deterrent to defend ourselves,” Cho said.
Sin Hye Jong, another North Korean student, echoed Cho’s sentiment. “We will give up the nuclear program only if all atomic weapons are eliminated in the world,” Sin said. “That’s the future we truly hope for.”
Horikawa said this concept — that nuclear weapons are vital to maintaining peace on the Korean Peninsula — left him befuddled.
For their part, the North Korean students were curious how the Japanese students interpreted the test-firing a day earlier of a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Aug. 24.
Japan said the missile entered and fell within the air defense identification zone off its shores, the first such close call for a North Korean missile.
“The test-firing is nothing but a threat to Japanese people and it is beyond our understanding that North Koreans celebrated the success,” said Reo Asahi, a 21-year-old sophomore at Gakushuin University.
For one North Korean, the test was less about Japan and more about the U.S. “If you want us to stop, you should drive U.S. forces out of your country,” the student told Asahi.
But despite the apparent animosity, the two groups of students had forged a bond by the end of their visit.
On the morning when the Japanese students were to return home, tears could be seen in the eyes of some of the North Korean students.
“I know that our current bilateral relations aren’t good, but I want to see you all again,” one North Korean student said upon departure at the airport.