The top leaders of the pro-Seoul and pro-Pyongyang groups of Korean residents in Japan met last week, ending almost 60 years of hostilities and marking the start of reconciliation. Mr. Ha Byeong Ok, president of pro-Seoul Mindan (Korean Residents Union in Japan) and Mr. So Man Sul, chairman of pro-Pyongyang Chongryun (General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) signed a joint statement in which the two groups agreed to firmly turn long-standing “antagonism and confrontation” into “reconciliation and concord.”

The move clearly reflects the belated political effects of the June 15, 2000, summit in Pyongyang between then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Another factor apparently was the 2002 summit between North Korean leader Kim and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Mr. Kim’s admission of, and apology for, the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents shocked Chongryun members. The bankruptcy of financial institutions affiliated with Chongryun also affected the group. As an organization, Chongryun has become weaker, with a membership of between 200,000 and 300,000 people. Thus it apparently felt the need to seek friendly relations with Mindan, which claims to have 550,000 members.

Societal factors affecting both groups also cannot be ignored. The number of third- and fourth-generation Koreans is increasing in Japanese society. These days about 90 percent of Korean residents born in Japan marry Japanese. About 10,000 Korean residents become naturalized Japanese every year. This leads to an annual decrease of 10,000 in the “Korean” population, now estimated at about 600,000. Paying attention to “serious phenomena that contribute to dilution or loss of ethnicity” among Koreans in Japan, the Mindan-Chongryun joint statement says the two groups will “make joint efforts to educate new generations and promote Koreans’ ethnic culture in order to protect and promote our ethnicity.”

Both Mindan and Chongryun have common roots in the Association of Korean Residents in Japan formed in 1945 to protect people’ livelihoods. Mindan’s predecessor group split from the association in 1946 after the association came under the influence of the Japanese Communist Party. Chongryun was formed in 1955.

The division of the Korean Peninsula as a result of Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union caused a schism among Koreans living in Japan. Mindan members, harboring strong anticommunist sentiment, supported South Korea while Chongryun members felt affinity with socialism and supported North Korea. Even as Korean residents suffered from poverty and discrimination in Japanese society, an ideological rivalry developed among them.

Chongryun originally was the stronger organization, but the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea in 1965, along with the South’s economic development and democratization, enabled Mindan to rally from behind.

Last week’s joint statement called the meeting between Mindan and Chongryun leaders a “historic encounter.” The groups agreed to jointly take part in a June festival at Kwangju, South Korea, to commemorate the June 15, 2000, agreement by North and South Korean leaders, and to cooperate in coping with the aging of the Korean population in Japan, to expand welfare activities among Korean communities and to protect Korean residents’ interests, among other things.

The meeting and joint statement can be regarded as the culmination of interchanges that have been going on between local members of Mindan and Chongryun long before official top-level relations between the two countries warmed.

Still, there are problems. For example, Mindan has been actively pushing for suffrage in local elections for Korean residents, while Chongryun has opposed the effort, saying it will lead to the assimilation of Koreans into Japanese society. There is a report that Mindan has stopped activities in support of North Koreans who have fled to Japan from North Korea apparently in deference to Chongryun’s wishes. This move could cause a rebellion among some Mindan members.

The joint statement does not touch on the question of how Korean residents can and will amicably coexist with Japanese. This is also a question that Japanese need to answer. The words of the late Mr. Kim Kyong Duk, the first Korean resident in postwar Japan to become a lawyer, should be remembered: “Korean residents are the first foreigners that Japanese encounter in their internationalization.”

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