North Korean-Japanese Relations: Ties that Bind

The past few months have been rather troublesome for Japan. Its territorial standoffs with China and South Korea are at a stalemate and the updated bill of 10 trillion yen ($125 billion) for the costly clean up of last year’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is set to take a toll on Japan’s already stagnant economy. However, things are looking up for the Land Of The Rising Sun in terms of its relations with its other neighbour, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The two Asian nations have resumed their bilateral talks from August in Beijing, in Ulan Bator on the 15th and the 16th of November. The meeting is seen as a minor victory for Japan as the erratic North Korean government had persistently refused to set a date for higher-level talks after its friction with the Japanese government over issues such as North’s nuclear programme and the abduction of Japanese civilians during the 1970s and the 1980s.

Image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

This talk is one of the very few official dialogues that have been held between the two states, which include the formal apology by Japan in 1991 for its annexation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945 as well as the most recent Six Party Talks in 2007. However, despite the lack of official correspondence between the two governments, Japan and DPRK have forged a special yet complex relationship over the past 60 years.

The paramount component of this ‘relationship’ is the government-tolerated presence of a pro-North Korean organisation, which acts as a ‘de facto’ embassy of DPRK in Japan as there is no official diplomatic relations between the two states. The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan or ‘Chongryon’ can be seen as the abiding result of the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. During its occupation of ‘Joseon’, the former name of the undivided Korea, more than 2.4 million ethnic Koreans, or Zainichi Koreans resided in mainland Japan as forced migrants and labour conscripts for World War II efforts. Following the defeat of Japan in 1945 and the subsequent liberation of Korea, most Korean residents repatriated back to Korea with the exception of roughly 650,000 Koreans who decided to remain. However, their decision proved to be problematic as their defunct ‘Joseon’ nationality left them as aliens to both their homeland and Japan.

Without a country and faced with legalised discrimination from the Japanese, many disillusioned and irate Zainichi Koreans with Joseon nationalities affiliated themselves with the pro-North and ethnocentric Chongryon organisation, forming a formidable North Korean presence in Japan. In contrast to its largely apolitical and pro-South counterpart, the Mindan association, Chongryon is active in promoting the DPRK’s socialist ideology and its position as the ‘legitimate’ Korea. The North Korean government has also provided around 46 billion yen ($579 million) to establish Korean schools, including a university, with a curriculum based on the North Korean education system. Moreover, Chongryon is known for its militant ethno-centric agenda, which discourages its members from taking up Japanese citizenship, marrying Japanese, or assimilating into Japanese society through electoral participation, rendering its members ‘stranded North Koreans’.

Furthermore, Chongryon is responsible for upstarting the mass Zainichi migration to the ‘Socialist Paradise’ during the late 1950s and the 1960s. The Zainichi immigrants soon found that their new homes were far from the utopia they were promised, but they became a crucial tool for the North Korean government in spawning foreign currency through remittances from their relatives in Japan. Some even cite the Japanese remittances, (which led the Chongryon-run credit unions to run deep in deficit), as the key factor in sustaining the lives of North Koreans during the North Korean famine of the mid 1990s that killed up to two million people. The organisation also provided the only direct link between the two countries through a passenger and cargo ferry, which gave way to illicit trade activities between the two countries until North Korea’s nuclear missile tests in 2006 led to the halt of the service.

Despite its currently dwindling membership and support, Chongryon at one point was the backbone of the DPRK’s unofficial currency-gathering enterprise through running pachinko, or gambling parlours, prostitution rings, and real estate, which is said to have yielded more than billion dollars in revenue until the 1990s.  However, the currency generating power of Chongryon has more or less ended after last June, when the Japanese court ordered the organisation to auction off its ten-story office building in Tokyo as it owed the Japanese government nearly $750 million for an emergency bailout that saved the aforementioned credit unions.

Another complicating factor of the Japanese-DPRK relations is the issue of DPRK’s abduction of Japanese citizens during the Cold War, which surpasses the nuclear testing issue in importance to the Japanese public.  In 2002, North Korea admitted to kidnapping 13 Japanese citizens including a 13- year old girl in 1977, for the purposes of spy training, and returned only 5 of the victims to Japan, while insisting that the remaining 8 had died. Naturally, Tokyo believes that the remaining victims who are supposedly deceased are still alive and the public believes that Pyongyang abducted at least 5 more. The National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea estimates that more than 100 have been abducted and some are even convinced that the rogue regime is still kidnapping their compatriots.

The pressing issue of DPRK-sponsored abductions has resulted in a call for economic sanctions by politicians and civic groups alike. However, the policy-makers have so far been reluctant in imposing sanctions as the low volume of bilateral trade, aided by the fall of Chongryon’s influence, is not likely to coax Pyongyang into divulging its maneuvers and will reduce Tokyo’s leverage.

However, the recent talks, whether a success or a disappointment, are significant as the largely non-compliant North swallowed its pride and agreed to set a date to discuss the aforesaid issues, after the communication halt in 2007. North Korea’s consent to official dialogues could be seen as a gesture to re-establish the broken link between the two nations for the benefit of Pyongyang’s economy. Chongryon’s bankruptcy during the first months of the new autocrat of the Hermit Kingdom- Kim Jong-un’s reign was a huge blow to the new regime and the economy, and the fact that DPRK had agreed to talks in August had led to the speculation that perhaps Kim is trying to consolidate his power by reconstructing the North Korean foothold by normalising relations and assuaging the Japanese public. Will Japan’s new round of talks with the DPRK convince China and South Korea that the talk of an inevitable return to Japan’s imperialistic past was just that – simply talk? That remains to be seen, but a physical meeting between the two has the potential to smooth over the feathers ruffled by the territorial disputes of the too-recent past, while they have the opportunity to address their own set of problems.