The leaders of the pro-Seoul and pro-Pyongyang groups in Japan ended 60 years of hostilities Wednesday with a reconciliation meeting in Tokyo.
It was the first meeting in the history of the two groups, which grew out of a split in a general Korean association formed in 1945.
The Korean Residents Union in Japan (Mindan) split off from the main group in 1946 to represent only South Koreans, and in 1955, the original group became the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun) to officially represent North Koreans.
President Ha Byeong Ok lead a delegation of six representatives in a morning visit to Chongryun’s headquarters in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, where they were greeted by Chongryun Chairman So Man Sul and other senior members.
Ha announced his desire to meet his Chongryun counterpart when he became Mindan leader in February.
Mindan officials were greeted at the entrance with flowers from women dressed in traditional Korean costume and applause from Chongryun members. The meeting lasted about 20 minutes.
“I have been longing for this day, but it took more than a half century. I am nearly weeping for joy,” a Chongryun official quoted Ha as saying at the start of the meeting.
“All Koreans living in Japan also must be sharing this joy,” So reportedly responded.
The two leaders signed a joint statement, in which the two groups said they supported the idea of unifying their home countries, and then embraced amid smiles and applause.
The statement says the two groups agree to work together to overcome their differences and cooperate for “ethnic unity” to improve the status of Korean residents in Japan.
However, the two sides remain apart on several issues, including suffrage in local-level elections, which Mindan has actively sought.
The two groups also said they will take part together in an upcoming commemoration of the June 2000 summit at which then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il called for reconciliation.
Touching upon their mutual concerns of a deteriorating sense of ethnic belonging among Korean residents in Japan, the two sides also agreed to join forces to educate young Koreans in their heritage and customs.
Chongryun spokesman So Chung On said Mindan representatives invited their Chongryun counterparts to visit their head office next, a trip that is expected to take place soon.
So said arrangements for Wednesday’s landmark meeting began about a week ago, following up on Ha’s remarks in February that he wanted a visit.
It was rumored in the media that the meeting could lead to Mindan to giving money to Chongryun. When asked, officials from both sides denied the speculation.
Many Korean residents in Japan welcomed the reconciliation. One of them was Chung Kap Su, a third-generation Korean resident whose grandparents came here from the Korean Peninsula in the 1920s.
“Cooperation in the areas of better ethnic education and welfare activities (as stipulated in the statement) is something Korean residents in Japan will be able to do immediately,” said Chung, who heads the Osaka-based Korea NGO Center.
“I hope we will also cooperate to promote protection of Koreans’ rights here.”
Despite the support from the Korean community, some experts warned there could be negative consequences to the thaw in relations.
Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, said the detente might lead Mindan to reduce its support in efforts to resolve Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals and to help people who fled to Japan from North Korea.
“I believe this reconciliation was realized because the South Korean government put pressure on Mindan to do so,” said Lee, who heads Rescue the North Korean People! Urgent Action Network, a group in Osaka, citing South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun’s attempts to establish good relations with Pyongyang.
Hidenori Sakanaka, a former director of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau who now heads a group helping Koreans in Japan and the Japanese spouses of Koreans who went to the North on a government resettlement program, also said cooperating with Chongryun might create a negative image of Mindan among Japanese.
“Japanese have a negative image of North Korea and Chongryun, due to the abduction issue and (the alleged smuggling of) stimulants from North Korea,” Sakanaka said.