Like many students in Japan, Kim Yang Sun cycles to school each morning. Unlike most, she then changes into a traditional Korean outfit and studies under portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
The Korean High School in Kita Ward, Tokyo, looks much like any such Japanese institution with a large clock sitting atop a gray buildings. But inside, all notices are written in Korean and female students and teachers wear the traditional “chima jeogori,” a full skirt and short jacket.
On a recent tour of the school, students were taking lessons in math, English and Korean, while one class was watching a Japanese-language documentary about South Korean President Park Geun-hye. The curriculum is largely based on that of Japanese high schools, enabling 40 percent of its graduates to go on to university.
“We are able to learn at this school because of the fatherland,” said Kim, an 18-year-old student at the school that is partly funded by the North Korean regime and kept alive with donations from parents. “They helped us through the most difficult times after colonization. I live in Japan, but I still feel connected to the fatherland.”
Serving the broader Korean community of about half a million, schools like Kim’s now struggle for survival as both nations cut funding. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is preventing parents from receiving subsidies amid fractious ties stemming from North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens more than three decades ago.
Principal Shin Gil Ung said the school teaches that both North Korea and South Korea are the “fatherland,” and students learn about the “actual situation” in North Korea and its socialist economy.
“It’s up to the students to decide whether they support that political system,” Shin said. “We avoid telling them that everything North Korea does is right.”
The schools have their critics. Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo who specializes in North Korea, said the curriculum content is “very ideological” and teaches “all boys and girls should obey leader Kim Jong Un.”
Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo, said the schools are a propaganda entity for Kim’s regime. “It’s like putting a Cuban school backed by the Castros in Florida,” he said.
Pupils at the Korean High School are discouraged from speaking Japanese — a language many use at home — and study a curriculum translated from Japanese textbooks, with the exception of modern history, which Shin said is taught from a Korean perspective.
Korean food such as “bibimbap” rice bowls and kimchi are served in the cafeteria. Many female students study a form of dance that combines elements of ballet with Asian movements and uses props such as shovels to tell stories about the joys of the harvest season. Final-year students visit North Korea during their summer vacation.
The schools were set up after World War II by Koreans who came to Japan during its 35-year occupation of Korea and stayed on as the instability that led to the Korean War and division of their country deterred them from returning. Barred from learning their own language under colonial rule, these Koreans set up schools to prepare their children for eventual resettlement to Korea for textbooks and cash.
Japan now has about 70 such establishments offering education for 8,000 or so students from kindergarten through university. While numbers have slumped from more than 40,000 in 1961 because of the falling birthrate and some ethnic Koreans taking Japanese nationality, that compares with only four schools backed by South Korea.
Their fate may hinge on North Korea providing Japan with information on the whereabouts of Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang agents more than 30 years ago. Talks in Pyongyang last month between a Japanese delegation and North Korean officials failed to make progress on the abduction issue, keeping both nations a long way from normalizing diplomatic relations.
While Japan was North Korea’s biggest trading partner as recently as 2001, relations have frayed to such an extent that total trade between the nations was zero last year.
The North Korean government may be dragging out the issue as part of a plan to play Japan, South Korea and the U.S. against each other “so they don’t all gang up on the North,” said Temple’s Dujarric.
While the schools had been tolerated for decades, anger over North Korea’s failure to return the abductees has bubbled over into discrimination against teachers and pupils.
“These kids have done nothing wrong,” said Pak Su Won, 50, the head of a group for mothers of students at Korean schools who organizes demonstrations outside the education ministry in Tokyo. “They are just ordinary high school students. Why must they be discriminated against?”
Japanese authorities have urged the schools to break away from North Korea.
On taking office in December 2012, education minister Hakubun Shimomura said the lack of progress on the abduction issue and the schools’ close ties with the organization of North Koreans in Japan meant the public would not accept subsidies for them.
“We wouldn’t have Korean schools if we didn’t have Chosen Soren,” school principal Shin said, referring to Chongryon, also known as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. It is the North Korean cultural, political and business organization in Japan and seen as the de facto embassy of North Korea.
“If you want to get something done, you need an organization. Denying that is the same as abolishing Korean schools,” Shin said.
Abe’s government last year disqualified families of students from receiving annual allowances of ¥120,000 available to those attending other high schools in Japan.
Some parents who would like a Korean education for their kids can’t afford the fees and send them to Japanese schools, said Shin. While Shin’s school is large and relatively prosperous, establishments in more remote areas often can’t afford to pay their teachers, he said.
Many local governments have withdrawn funding. Osaka Prefecture, an area with a high proportion of ethnic Koreans, has stopped the ¥185 million in annual subsidies it previously paid to the schools.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Japan in August to reverse its position, and the issue of exclusion from benefits is being fought in five court cases nationwide. Shimomura said in September that the U.N. committee’s view was “extremely regrettable.”
Cases of hate speech against Koreans living in Japan have also been rising, according to the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center. Abe said in August he wanted the issue dealt with properly.
The Osaka High Court in July upheld a ruling banning a group from demonstrating near a North Korean elementary school in Kyoto. The organization known as Zaitokukai, or “Group of citizens who do not tolerate privileges for ethnic Korean residents in Japan,” used trucks and loudspeakers to make speeches deemed racially discriminatory, according to the Asahi Shimbun.
Five Zaitokukai members were arrested Oct. 25 over a disturbance they allegedly caused in August after events to commemorate the anniversary of the end of World War II.
Despite such harassment, Korean schools in Japan no longer assume their students plan to resettle in their ancestral homeland, instead equipping them to contribute to their communities in Japan, Shin said.
“If it’s unified, I may want to go back and live (in North Korea),” said 18-year-old student Kim. “But I’ve always lived in Japan and Japan is more convenient and easier to live in.”