Further signs that relations between Japan and North Korea are improving have emerged this weekend, with the leaders of two key pro-North Korean factions in Japan making trips to Pyongyang. The head of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), Ho Jong-man, and Yasunobu Kanemaru, son of the late Shin Kanemaru, a former vice president of the Liberal Democratic Party who led a delegation to Pyongyang in 1990 to normalize ties with North Korea, are both currently paying extended visits to the Hermit Kingdom. Ho will meet with top officials during his trip, and both men are set to make key appearances around the time North Korea is expected to release its report on the whereabouts of Japanese citizens abducted in the 1970s and 80s.
Ho’s trip to Pyongyang will be his first in eight years. Besides heading Chongryon, he is also a member of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly. He is accompanied by several other Chongryon executives, and was met upon arrival by Hyong Sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and Kim Yang Gon, director of the United Front Department of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, according to the Japan Times. As Chongryon has run into serious financial trouble in Japan, including $750 million in debt to the government that resulted in the liquidation of its Tokyo headquarters, Ho is expected to discuss this and other key bilateral issues during his visit. He is also “expected to receive various instructions” from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and take part in a parliamentary session on September 25.
Kanemaru is leading a group of nearly 60 to Pyongyang, and while he has said “our trip is mainly sightseeing, and we have no political intention,” he also said he hopes the group’s visit will contribute to continued improved relations. His father’s history of leading a joint LDP-SPJ delegation which signed a declaration with the ruling Korean Worker’s Party that called “for the need to normalize diplomatic ties” will factor strongly into his current group’s visit, which plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Shin Kanemaru’s birthday on September 17.
While Ho’s visit is much more important (particularly his expected meeting with leader Kim Jong-un), both men are influential, and visiting at a very opportune time. North Korea is expected to release the results of its abductee investigation in either the second or third week of September. Ho has taken advantage of the relaxation of sanctions by Japan in July which now allows deputies of North Korea’s parliament to reenter Japan. He will likely be trying to work with Pyongyang’s officials to make sure that further sanctions are dropped once the report is released, like lifting the ban on the Mangyongbong-92 cargo ferry, which is a key source of funds between North Korea and its expatriate community in Japan. Kanemaru’s visit is more symbolic, yet the size of his delegation is important as well, as it may include investors and officials with an eye toward business opportunities once further sanctions are lifted.