When observing a place like North Korea, you’re often exposed to a way of life that many correctly assume would never be possible in an open society, or anywhere outside the country. While that’s usually accurate, it also begs the question of how over 150,000 Koreans in Japan openly express their loyalty to North Korea and the Kim family. They account for about a quarter of Japanese Koreans and have been present there since before Korea was divided. They are a testament to the power of families to indoctrinate even in a society that’s incompatible with their teachings. These Koreans are unified under an organization called Chongryon (총련) or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (재일본 조선인 총련합회). Since North Korea has no diplomatic ties to Japan, it has served as the de facto embassy there. The majority of Japanese Koreans hold South Korean citizenship through a far more innocuous organization called Mindan (민단) or the Korean Residents Union in Japan (재일본대한민국민단) which for reasons that may soon be clear, is not quite as controversial. Unlike Mindan, Chongryon’s quasi-official status makes it a more direct representative of its nation, and the leaders of Chongryon are actually members of North Korea’s parliament. Their meetings in Japan appear like something straight out of Pyongyang.
Japan colonized Korea for 35 years, and the last years of this occupation were the most extreme, when Japan attempted to erase the Korean language, culture, and identity. In a bid to make a better a life for themselves and their families, thousands of Koreans moved to the Japanese mainland, learned the language, and settled there as immigrants. While some became Japanese citizens, most chose to live there as permanent residents. After Japan surrendered in WWII and Korea was divided, they were free apply for citizenship back home, but which Korea?
Short of manpower and foreign currency, North Korea established the “Return Project” in 1959 to repatriate Japanese Koreans by luring them with promises of “Paradise on Earth”. During this time, massive foreign aid from the Soviet Union allowed the North Korean economy to briefly surpass that of the South; a rare period when the North could back its rhetoric with superior numbers. Over 90,000 would heed the call to return over the next 20 years. But what these immigrants were expecting is not what they ended up experiencing, and like all other North Koreans, they were never permitted to leave once they arrived. They had anticipated that either Korea would soon be reunified or that North Korea would at least establish diplomatic relations with Japan, neither of which has happened to this day.
Sometimes entire families emigrated back to North Korea, while other times they sent their children to live there. In a documentary called Dear Pyongyang, a Japanese Korean documents her elderly father, who was a leading member of Chongryon and sent all three of his sons to live in North Korea. He has had to grapple with that decision for decades now, but him and his ardent communist wife still believe in the cause. Other cases are more blatantly tragic, a more infamous example being that of Kang Chol Hwan, who was just a boy when he and his entire family moved to Pyongyang in the 1960s. He and his family were never fully accepted in North Korea due to their time in Japan, and after his family kept losing one possession after another to the party, his father was eventually accused of being a counter-revolutionary. After a knock on the door at night, the entire family was trucked off to a concentration camp where he survived for ten years and was eventually released before escaping to South Korea via China and becoming a journalist in Seoul. The memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang describes his ten years in the gulag and is a veritable horror story of beatings, torture, executions, starvation, and relentless propaganda. He was one of the few to make it out of both the camp and the country alive. North Korea denies the camps exist.
Not only do the Japanese Koreans of Chongryon adhere to North Korean ideology, they are also known in Japan and elsewhere for their exclusive and isolated education system. While the children of these families grow up next door to their Japanese counterparts, they only attend special schools run by Chongryon. In fact, the organization operates 140 schools from kindergartens to a university. In many ways, the schools are a microcosm of North Korea, complete with portraits of the Kims hanging in every classroom, and the main language of instruction being Korean. Their textbooks have also courted controversy, insisting that the North’s 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight never happened and is a fabrication. This is in contrast to the memoir of the spy who planted the explosives. Sometimes the schools organize field trips to Pyongyang, complete with as much propaganda as any Western visitor would ever receive.
Many of the elder Chongryon members are aging ideologues nostalgic for the brief period when North Korea’s economy was stronger than that of the South. But it’s more of a conundrum to figure out how the younger members can grow up in a globalized, consumer society and yet maintain their loyalty to an impoverished totalitarian nation that many of them have never been to. Some maintain their adherence, but evidence is showing that third and fourth generation Chongryon members are dissatisfied and being more assimilated into Japanese society. Yet their roots in the organization have been the source of an increasing social problem for them because no one who graduates from these schools is eligible for the college entrance exams. Already a minority in Japan, it makes their prospects in the competitive job market there that much more bleak. The few schools run by Mindan and other foreign schools are eligible, but many of these also teach in Japanese and are more integrated. A short documentary featuring interviews with younger Chogryon members can be found here.
Financially, the relationship between Chongryon and North Korea is an important two way street. The Japanese have a game called pachinko, which can be described as a cross between a pinball and a slot machine. It’s the only form of gambling nominally tolerated by the government there, and it’s usually played inside loud fluorescent parlors with narrow rows of seats often fully occupied. While some of these are by the Japanese mafia, anywhere from 30-80% are operated by Chongryon. Much of the revenue goes back to Pyongyang along with remittances, and in 2005 alone the total exceeded $120 million. Some of Chongryon’s education system is occasionally funded in part by Japanese taxpayers, and in part by North Korea. There used to be over 160 schools, but many have shut down due to decreasing funds; there’s even footage of an abandoned one here. Until a few years ago, Chongryon’s semi-official status gave it diplomatic immunity from legal action, but not so anymore. It has been in the spotlight for not repaying its loans, as well as various other charges from embezzlement to unlicensed accounting and tax evasion. A Japanese Marxist governor exempted Chongryon from taxes in 1972, but this was revoked in 2003.
Though South Korea is a liberal democracy, its National Security Law presents an exception to freedom of speech by archaically banning any material regarded as pro-North Korea. As such, no organization even remotely like Chongryon would be permitted to exist there. North Korea allows Chongryon families in Japan to visit their relatives living in the country on a somewhat regular basis. They often smuggle in remittances and bring gifts. All of the travel is on board a passenger ferry called the Mangyongbong-92 (만경봉 92호), built in 1992 to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 80th birthday. It travels from Niigata, Japan to Wonsan, North Korea on trips roughly a day long about 20-30 times a year. The ship was banned from Japanese ports for six months in 2006 following allegations that North Korean spies had been trawling Tokyo’s megamalls for everything from Playstations to camera lenses with the sole purpose of expropriating the technology for its military hardware. It’s been the target of numerous accusations and rumors of smuggling including methamphetamines. Nowadays it is also being used as a tourist cruise ship that travels between domestic ports in North Korea.
Chongryon was largely responsible for North Korea’s representation on the internet for quite some time, and still maintains a large portion of it through propaganda websites republishing articles from the Workers Party’s official organs. There are also some North Korean websites hosted in China, though many are actually based in North Korea now as well. It’s worth nothing that due to the law mentioned above, all of these sites are banned in South Korea, when trying to access them you instead get a government warning, and unless one knows how to connect through a proxy server that’s the case with most of these websites, certainly the ones hosted in North Korea itself. While South Korea has the greatest ratio of internet users in the world, almost no one in North Korea has a computer, and even if they did the internet is out of the question. In fact, one village in particular has been without electricity for seven years. The target audience for these websites has not always been clear, but North Korea’s propaganda wing has still made efforts to expand to Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube in recent times as well. Apparently for quite some time the North Korean government’s Facebook profile said it was interested in men.