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Yoshiaki Saito points to a row of live crabs at the front of his shop in Tokyo’s largest seafood market. “Those are from Russia, those from Japan,” he says.

“And these are from North Korea.”

Most Japanese would be surprised.

Japan and North Korea have little in common but enmity. But perhaps no other country can claim a greater role than Japan in propping up North Korea’s isolationist and often belligerent regime.

This is nothing new, but now the connection is under fresh scrutiny because of Pyongyang’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its decision to restart a mothballed reactor capable of supplying materials for atomic weapons.

From crabs and sea urchins to men’s suits, and through a black-market trade allegedly running from narcotics to counterfeit cash, North Korea sucks hundreds of millions of dollars out of its rich neighbor each year.

Instead of spending the money on its own hungry, impoverished people, experts here say, North Korea is using the profits to fund its military ambitions — including nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach Japan and the United States.

“The military gets money from these exports,” said Toshio Miyatsuka, a professor at Yamanashi Gakuin University. “If money gained from this trade is put into long-range missiles that target Japan, then we would be strangling ourselves.”

Just a day away by ship, Japan is by far North Korea’s biggest customer, gobbling up to a quarter of its exports.

North Korea shipped $225.62 million worth of goods to Japan in 2001, according to figures compiled by the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency in South Korea. Its next biggest markets were South Korea, which imported $176.17 million, and China, $166.73 million.

Seafood and gourmet mushrooms are a major export to Japan, as are men’s suits — 650,000 of them last year, more than were bought from Italy and Hong Kong, according to the Japan Textiles Importers’ Association.

Another prime source of funds is Japan’s $9.3 billion market in drugs, which police believe the North eagerly supplies. North Koreans have also been arrested for counterfeiting dollars and yen.

Another critical component is cash sent by Koreans living in Japan.

Numbering about 200,000, they are mostly second- and third-generation residents whose parents and grandparents came to Japan to work during its often brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

After the war, many had little choice but to stay behind, their loyalties — and Korean citizenship — divided between North and South after their homeland was split in half.

Experts say Pyongyang milks the community for cash, especially those with kin who moved to North Korea between 1959 and 1985 under a relocation campaign. They fear those relatives could suffer if they don’t pay up.

“Some 93,000 people went to the North in the repatriation movement. It is as though they are all being held hostage,” said Katsuei Hirasawa, a Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and an outspoken critic of North Korea.

Hirasawa estimates Koreans in Japan send roughly $85 million to North Korea each year. If the money flow stops and Japan imposes sanctions, “North Korea will collapse,” he said.

But Pyongyang says sanctions would be an act of war, and Japan, with U.S. troops spread across its islands, and all its cities in range of North Korean missiles, takes the threat seriously.

Officials are also wary of angering the General Association of Korean Residents of Japan (Chongryun), a vocal and well-organized group devoted to Pyongyang.

Misako Kaji, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s spokeswoman, says sanctions are not on the government’s agenda “at the moment.”

But some warn that inaction isn’t an option either.

“The North Korea threat is increasing,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the National Defense Academy. “They have missiles that can reach us and they’ve resumed their nuclear program. Once they have nuclear weapons, they can intimidate us.

“We need to consider sanctions,” he said, “starting with nonmilitary ones.”

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