The Korean Central News Agency is the official English-language press agency of North Korea. When tensions escalate between the two Koreas, it is to this agency that the world press corps turns for comment.
Since 1996, the KCNA’s only overseas office, the Korea News Service in Tokyo, has operated a Web site, posting up to 10 stories daily from the KCNA. In a recent interview, the KNS’s business director, Li Yang Su, made few excuses for the Realpolitik style of the KCNA news reports. A hardline, uncompromising stance is necessary, he said, if North Korea is to preserve its purity and simplicity and withstand the “soulless, empty homogenization of the world.”
Li typifies those Koreans living in Japan who oppose what they view as the U.S. occupation of South Korea and consequently support North Korea, warts and all. His father was forcibly brought to Japan in 1928 during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945), and Li himself was born here. He attended the pro-Pyongyang Korea University in western Tokyo, going on to teach Russian literature at his alma mater before taking up his present position with KNS.
Of the 700,000 Koreans residing in Japan today, Li estimates that 97 percent came originally from what is now South Korea; and yet, he claims, approximately 50 percent of them now support the Pyongyang regime. In Japan, there are two organizations with which ethnic Koreans can be affiliated: Chongryon (pro-North Korea) or Mindan (pro-South Korea). All ethnic Koreans living here, even those belonging to the third or fourth generations, have to register with the authorities when they turn 16, and from then on must always carry alien registration cards. It is possible to have a South Korean passport and be a permanent resident of Japan, but as North Korea has no diplomatic relations with Japan, ethnic North Koreans would have to give up their permanent-residence status here in order to obtain a North Korean passport. Thus, in Li’s case, his alien registration card gives him residence in Japan, but he holds no passport. Intriguingly, it seems highly likely that there are South Korean passport holders living in Japan who support the North.
According to Li, some 100,000 ethnic Korean Japanese residents have returned to live in North Korea since 1959. This repatriation peaked in the 1960s in the wake of the renewal of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. So vehement was the opposition to the treaty in 1960 that the noted Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson compared the protests to the 1956 Hungarian revolution, minus the guns.
With the heyday of Japanese socialism now a distant memory, the number of people leaving Japan to live in North Korea has slowed to a trickle. However, the ship Mangyongbong still sails weekly from Niigata to Pyongyang. Li’s 17-year-old son recently made the 40-hour trip to attend a music school in Pyongyang, where he honed his skills on the “changsaenam,” or Korean clarinet. The ship is also used to ferry money from Japan to North Korea and to facilitate a small barter trade between the two countries in products such as lead, zinc, seafood, rice and mushrooms.
The Japanese government has drawn criticism at home for being too accommodating toward North Koreans living in Japan. Such people do, after all, support a state that in August 1998 sent a Taepodong ballistic missile over the Japanese archipelago. Additionally, as recently reported in the Japanese magazine Sapio, a petition bearing 1.3 million signatures was handed to Japan’s Foreign Ministry, pleading for investigations into the cases of between 40 and 50 Japanese people allegedly kidnapped by North Korean agents and taken to North Korea to serve as Japanese teachers.
Li scorns the kidnapping theory, accusing Sapio of engaging in North Korea-bashing. According to him, “it is not necessary to kidnap Japanese to act as Japanese teachers when there are thousands of third- or fourth-generation ethnic Koreans (who are) fluent in Japanese and willing to teach in Pyongyang.”
Li is remarkably stoic in his defense of the North Korean regime. For him, the country’s economic problems and ongoing famine are a result of the fall of the communist bloc worldwide and of natural disasters, not mismanagement. The belligerence and intransigence of North Korea’s rulers are necessary, he believes, for a country totally isolated from the world community but still committed to the “juche” ideal of self-reliance. The support of Koreans here is understandable, since, of the two Koreas, only the North has remained true to traditional Korean culture and Confucian virtues such as filial piety.
It is clear that Li, like many other pro-Pyongyang Koreans living in Japan, derives a sense of identity from this imagined Utopia, which he nevertheless rarely visits. Supporting the promised land from the sidelines is, it seems, a painless business.
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