The head of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, had his home searched by police on Thursday, and two South Korean men were arrested on suspicion of illegally importing matsutake mushrooms from North Korea.
Raids took place at six locations, including the Tokyo home of Ho Jong Man, chairman of Chongryon, a body which has functioned as a de facto North Korean embassy for many decades in the absence of diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang.
Observers said the raid on the chairman’s home could affect stalled bilateral talks on Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s.
Police arrested Lee Tong-chol, 61, president of a Tokyo-based trading house, and Yoshihiko Kin, 42, an employee of the company. They are suspected of illegally importing about 1,200 kg of matsutake mushrooms worth around ¥3 million via China in September 2010.
The mushrooms are believed to have been sold in Japan, mislabeled as Chinese-grown produce.
Japan has banned imports from North Korea since October 2006 as part of economic sanctions imposed in response to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.
Both suspects are residents of Japan, and both denied the allegation. Investigators quoted Lee as saying he does not understand why he should be arrested, while Kin denied all knowledge of the matter.
Police are investigating the relationship between the suspects and Ho, who is a member of North Korea’s top legislature.
After the early morning raid on his home in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, Ho told reporters angrily he does not even know the name of the trading company.
“The investigation is done unlawfully and this would lead to serious problems in the relationship” between North Korea and Japan, he said.
“This is political suppression against the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan,” he said.
Touching on the ongoing investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea, Ho said the Japanese authority is making things worse, interfering with the investigation by deliberately worsening relations with North Korea.
Meanwhile, a senior police investigator said authorities suspect a link between the illegal trade and Chongryon, and that they will do everything they can to investigate.
To that end, police have so far searched more than 10 locations, including the trading house and the homes of Lee and of Ho’s son last May.
The locations searched Thursday include the Tokyo home of the pro-Pyongyang group’s vice chairman.