Imagine attending school with portraits of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il Sung, and current leader Kim Jong Il hanging on the classroom walls. This is a reality at schools operated by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.

Known as Chongryon in Korean and “Chosen Soren” in Japanese, the association runs 60 Korean-language schools throughout Japan, ranging from kindergartens through high school, and even a university — Korea University — in Tokyo. Chongryon members represent roughly 25 percent of the 610,000 people known as “Zainichi” Koreans — those born and raised in Japan who have not taken Japanese citizenship. Sixty-five percent of Zainichi Koreans are members of the pro-South Korea Mindan organization.

Although Mindan has a larger membership, their school system is not as extensive or developed as Chongryon’s. Chongryon supports North Korea politically, and until recently the curriculum offered political ideology and history classes from a North Korean perspective, implying uncritical praise for the North’s leaders and the communist system.

How do graduates of the Chosen Soren system see themselves? Members of the Korean community have strong and differing opinions on identity. Some asked that their full names not be used in this article.

“North Korea is my country,” says Mr. Shin, 25, a Korea University graduate and resident of Aichi Prefecture who has spent his whole life in Japan. “I’m North Korean. I think how you understand yourself entirely changes your life.”

Jungwang Kwang, 33, originally from Nagoya but now working at an English school in Chiba, says he identifies more with South Korea despite having been through the Chongryon education system. “The school made me proud to be Korean, but it’s easier to be Japanese, and actually I’d rather be South Korean. I used to think I was unique, but it’s complicated to talk about because the image of Koreans is sometimes negative (here).”

Like most Chongryon high school students, Kasun Kang visited North Korea on a school trip. “The funny thing is that we wouldn’t want to live there, but it was good to be in our homeland,” says Kang, who works in Tokyo as a translator. “When I visited South Korea it didn’t feel like home. I’m not North Korean but I’m a North Korean in Japan — a Zainichi.”

Ms. Chin, a schoolmate of Kang also living in Tokyo, agrees. “North Korea is my country, but I’m lucky that I was born in Japan. Which team would I cheer for if I watched a soccer game between North Korea and Japan? It’s hard to answer that.”

Despite their differing views on identity, Kang, Chin, and Kwang do have one thing in common: They all recently acquired South Korean passports. Despite Chongryon’s ties to the North, Chin reckons that about half the community has South Korean passports. “I don’t know of anyone who has gotten a North Korean passport,” she says.

“A South Korean passport is more convenient,” explains Kang. “When I traveled it was annoying dealing with the Japanese re-entry certificate in my passport that said I was North Korean.” What about getting a North Korean passport? “I never considered it.”

Kang feels an allegiance to North Korea, but growing up in a society hostile to the North and traveling abroad has left her with a complex view of the land she visited 14 years ago.

“I used to be more communistic but I’ve traveled abroad and heard other opinions, so I’m not communist anymore,” she says. “We don’t need to study socialist ideology, but on the other hand if North Korea becomes capitalist, then what does North Korea mean? I’m not sure. It’s ridiculous studying the ideology of Kim Jong Il, but at the same time Japan teaches its own ideology in school.”

As a student, Chin says that she had a “good impression” of North Korea, but now she questions communism “because in North Korea only the elite are rich and the rest are poor. The late-1990s famine there showed me that communism is failing, but I still don’t think that capitalism is the best system.” Like most other people, Chin was “shocked by the abductions of Japanese citizens and that North Korea admitted to it. They said they did it to teach spies Japanese language and culture, but I wondered why when there are Japanese-speaking Koreans in Japan. It shook my faith in North Korea.”

The future for Chongryon’s schools looks uncertain. Enrollment has dropped from a high of 46,000 pupils in the early 1970s to about 15,000 in recent years. Financial problems are also accelerating the decline. North Korea is said to have stopped subsidizing the schools and the Japanese government has refused funding requests.

“Many schools are in the red and tuition is double compared to Japanese schools,” says Kwang. “My mother teaches at a Chongryon junior high school and the student numbers are less than half of what they used to be.”

Ms. Ryu, a 31-year old administrative assistant in Kobe and a schoolmate of Kang, explains that after news of the abductions broke a lot changed at Chongryon schools. “When I was a student, all the classrooms had portraits of the two Kim leaders on the walls, but they were taken down. Now, their portraits are only in the teachers’ room. And the studies of Kim Jong Il’s childhood were removed from the curriculum.” Curriculum issues cause difficulties because the “socialist paradise” ideology bumps up against the “failed state” image most people have of North Korea.

Chin believes “North Korea should admit its faults and give the truth to the students. People won’t lose faith in North Korea if the truth is shown.”

Kwang is more blunt. “Anybody can tell that North Korea is a bad place. Those who support Kim Jong Il look like the odd men out now.”

Ryu objects to the political ideology on more pragmatic grounds. “I’m grateful that I learned my language and made lots of friends, but I wasn’t into studying the life or ideas of Kim Il Sung. Koreans should learn more about how to live in Japanese society.” Ryu also considers some of Chongryon’s actions unwise considering the negative image of North Korea in Japan. “The Japanese media’s negative portrayal of North Korea doesn’t tell the whole story, but my friends are worried sending their children to school. For example, school buses driving down the street with ‘North Korean school bus’ written in kanji will give a bad impression to Japanese. That makes many parents nervous about what others think.”

Compounding Chongryon’s problems is the fact that more Koreans are assimilating. “We’re getting used to Japanese society,” explains Chin. “Once many students grow up it’s hard to maintain North Korean patriotism and they’ll send their kids to Japanese schools.”

There are, however, limits to this trend toward assimilation and integration. Even Ryu, who is unenthusiastic about Chongryon’s emphasis on North Korea, is careful to point out that Zainichi Koreans still face discrimination in Japan. “Talented Koreans haven’t been allowed to rise. Older generations were excluded from integrating into Japanese society, and Korean organizations welcomed those people. But things are changing now even though prejudice is still there. As long as there’s discrimination in Japan there will be a need for the Chosen Soren schools.”

Kang believes “both sides should change — the discriminatory Japanese attitude and the insular Korean-community attitude. I want the (Chongryon) schools to last, but I wonder if they can. My elementary school shut down. I would send my children to the schools only if they change the curriculum ideology.”

With the Korean Peninsula split between two countries with diametrically opposed political systems that are still technically at war, there are currently few options out there for Zainichi parents who want their children to receive a Korean education in Japan without political overtones.

“Language and culture are important to learn,” says Ryu, “but realistically, it would be difficult to make a pan-Korean school curriculum without political biases. Politically independent schools will come only in the distant future, like when my grandchildren will be going to school.”

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