Chongryun has recently come under the spotlight in connection with an aborted sale of its Tokyo headquarters — North Korea’s de facto embassy in Japan — to an investment advisory firm led by former Public Security and Intelligence Agency chief Shigetake Ogata.

Ogata was arrested June 28 for allegedly defrauding the pro-Pyongyang group out of its property rights by taking advantage of the besieged group. It was trying to prevent the seizure of its headquarters by the government-backed debt collector Resolution and Collection Corp., to which it owes 62.7 billion yen.

Also known as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, Chongryun has also courted controversy with its close ties with North Korea and alleged involvement in the abductions of Japanese to the North in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chongryun’s South Korean counterpart, Mindan, or the Korean Residents Union in Japan, shares historical differences as complex as the divided peninsula. Neither are considered mere civic groups. Following are some questions and answers about the two groups:

What are Chongryun and Mindan’s roles?

They have served as social, economic and ideological linchpins in Japan for long-term Korean residents of either North or South persuasion.

The two groups, however, have long kept each other at arm’s length due to their fierce loyalties to their respective Koreas. Both are headquartered in Tokyo, and each group has more than 300 local chapters nationwide.

Japan had a combined 600,000 Korean residents as of the end of 2006, according to the Justice Ministry.

Mindan claimed about 384,000 members while Chongryun boasted roughly 200,000.

However, some experts believe Chongryun has been losing members, especially over the past five years, due to Pyongyang’s bad international reputation. Actual membership is rumored to be less than 50,000.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s 2002 admission that agents had abducted several Japanese in the 1970s and ’80s, and the hermit state’s missile tests despite international calls for restraint, are cited as the major causes for the membership drop and the loss of Chongryun’s influence in Japan.

Mindan’s membership is also declining, because an increasing number of South Korean residents are marrying Japanese or otherwise becoming Japanese citizens and thus their loyalty to the group is dwindling.

What is their historical background?

Chongryun and Mindan trace their origins to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Chongryun was established in 1955 and declared support for the North Korean communist government led by Kim Il Sung.

During the Cold War, the two organizations were at ideological poles in a virtual proxy war between North and South Korea.

What are Chongryun’s major activities?

The organization states that it serves to protect the rights, ethnic culture and identity of pro-North Korean residents. It also supports a movement pushing for the socialist unification of the Korean Peninsula.

To this end, the group provides children of Korean residents with ethnic education, holds cultural events, publishes papers and magazines and helps North Korean people’s economic activities by forming such institutions as a business association, credit unions and trading houses in Japan.

However, authorities and Chongryun defectors point to a darker side of the group, claiming that in reality it has been acting as a fundraising body for North Korea and engaging in illegal activities on orders from the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il regimes, including participating in the abductions of Japanese.

“Chongryun used to work for the benefit of North Koreans in Japan, but it has become a group that siphons money from North Korean residents and sends it to the home country,” said Park Too Jin, head of Korea International Institute who belonged to Chongryun until 1975. “Chongryun is Kim Jong Il’s organization and has acted as a base for North Korean agents.”

The Public Security Intelligence Agency monitors Chongryun on the suspicion it is engaged in subversive activities. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said: “It is obvious Chongryun’s members were involved in the abduction (of Japanese nationals) and had committed other crimes. The group is under surveillance.”

Chongryun issued a statement June 28, the same day Ogata was arrested, slamming Abe for treating the group as a criminal organization and claiming his intention is to oppress North Koreans in Japan.

What about Mindan’s activities?

Mindan also works to advocate the rights of Korean residents and provides ethnic educational programs for children of South Koreans residing in Japan.

What differentiates Mindan’s activities from Chongryun’s is that the pro-Seoul group has been pushing for local suffrage for South Koreans with permanent residency.

Chongryun defines its members as North Korean nationals residing overseas and therefore the pro-Pyongyang group does not pursue voting rights in Japan.

Mindan works to support North Korean defectors by providing Japanese-language lessons and job-placement services to those who have fled here from the hermit state.

Mindan also serves as a de facto consulate for South Koreans, handling applications for passports and family registrations.

The organization is not a South Korean governmental office, but even so it receives about 80 million yen in annual subsidies from Seoul.

Have the two groups tried to reconcile their differences and make peace?

In May 2006, the leaders of the two held a historic reconciliation meeting in Tokyo to end some 60 years of hostility.

However, Mindan retracted its statement of reconciliation less than two months later after facing strong opposition from regional chapter members who accused the group’s top executives of holding secret reconciliation talks, and after North Korea carried out missile tests that were deemed provocative.

Mindan’s chief and other executives resigned last July amid the fallout.

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