Tokyo Report

Japan’s North Korean Diaspora

The past, present, and future of Chongryon, the pro-North Korea group based in Japan.

Japan’s North Korean Diaspora
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / John Pavelka

The community for the North Korean diaspora in Japan (commonly known as Chongryon) celebrated its 62nd birthday last October. Initially organized in 1945, just after the independence of the Korean Peninsula, the Korean diaspora group was a politically neutral organization which worked to help the  over 2 million Koreans living in Japan return to their hometown, or assist the livelihoods of those who decided to stay. Yet as the ideological clash in the Korean Peninsula became more severe, the leftist faction, which agreed with Kim Il-sung’s communist vision, took complete control of the community. The rightest factions instead formed a separate, South Korean diaspora community called the Mindan, meaning Japan’s Korean community separated along the same lines and around the same time as the Korean peninsula.

The pro-North Korea community was dispersed by the Japanese government for engaging in illegal demonstrations led by the Japanese Communist party, but managed to reorganize as the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, in 1955. At its peak, Chongryon was the biggest Korean society group in Japan, with more than 500,000 members,

Chongryon has been consistently controversial in both Japan and South Korea. Japan faced difficulties legitimizing the continued existence of an adversarial community on Japanese soil following a spate of abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. Chongryon also often served as a medium for North Korean espionage and propaganda, serving as a liability in South Korea’s rivalry with North Korea. The ethnic Korean community soon became the stage for competition between South and North Korea. As the pro-South Korean diaspora group Mindan was considerably smaller in size than Chongryon, exerting higher influence in the latter became a strategical necessity for any government seeking to maintain influence on the Korean diaspora in Japan.

Despite the competition, Chongryon remained under North Korean influence. Although Chongryon’s influence in the Korean society in Japan deteriorated as the reality of North Korea became apparent to the members of Chongryon, the organization still continues today, representing the North Korean diaspora in Japan.

In February 2016, the Japanese Public Security Intelligence Agency officially announced the approximate number of Chongryon members for the first time in history. According to that official estimate, there are now at most 70,000 members left in the organization. Among those, only half are North Korean passport holders, with the rest being either South Korean or Japanese citizens. What once stood as the biggest Korean community within Japan has now been reduced to less than one-sixth of its original size.

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However, when these numbers were announced to the families of abducted Japanese citizens, they could not believe that this many “potential abductors” were still living among them. “Speaking from our perspective, we were surprised that there were still this many,” said Shigeo Iizuka, who heads an organization representing the families of abduction victims.

Following recurring missile tests by North Korea, some of which traveled across Japanese territory, the perception of North Korea in Japan has gone severely downhill. Of course, ever since the reality of the North Korean “paradise” was exposed and Pyongyang’s nuclear agenda was initiated in the 1990s, North Korea has been considered a potential, if not imminent, enemy by the Japanese public. However, the recent upsurge in tensions and aggressive missile tests are raising the threat awareness of the public to another level. Under such social pressure, the purpose and reason for the very existence of Chongryon is being constantly questioned.

The homepage of the official website of Chongryon is full of North Korean propaganda slogans and various links to media operated by the North Korean regime. The interesting mix of Japanese characters and propaganda slogans written in Korean represents the identity of this community. The political stance in Chongryon’s self-introduction are also in alignment with those of North Korea, using phrases like  “The imperialist United States of America has illegally occupied South Korea…”

However, the official website is only a part of the identity of Chongryon members. The organization is not only a cultural, ideological community but also an economic community, which exerts its influence on members’ occupations, education, and even way of life.

Around 130 educational organizations are affiliated with Chongryon, even including a university, Korea University (although the official site only lists 66 such organizations, the actual number is believed to be double that). These organizations are funded by the “Chongryongye” enterprises, a term which represents the companies that have their roots in Chongryon. Their activities gained the spotlight in the late 1990s as they decided to considerably reduce their investments in North Korea, due to previously failed investments and the seemingly impossible revival of the North Korean economy.

The complicated economic relationships shared within the community explain why 70,000 members still remain. The members of Chongryon are generally aware of the realities of North Korea may even resent the dynastic regime controlling their mother country. Such tendencies are evident in the fact that approximately half of the Chongryon members hold either South Korean or Japanese passports.

However, the continued existence of Chongryon can therefore be explained from practical factors. Although allegedly a puppet agency representing the North Korean government in Japan, which has still not normalized relations with North Korea, Chongryon members seem to remain more due to economical, practical considerations than ideological motivations. Receiving education from kindergarten and up in educational institutions run by Chongryon limits potential job opportunities outside the Chongryongye, as the Japanese public has a strong bias against these institutions. This eventually leads members back to the community, keeping Chongryon intact despite a constant downsizing.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s personal letter to Chongryon on its 60th anniversary, in 2015, concluded by saying: “I believe that Chongryon, along with all Koreans living in Japan, will take its glorified role and responsibility in the fight to open a new golden age for social movements led by Koreans living in Japan and share its fate, life, and death with its mother nation without change in the future as well.”

Kim emphasized the importance of continued alignment with North Korea for Chongryon and the integration of the Korean diaspora in Japan in his letter. He has recurrently suggested cooperation with the pro-South Korean Mindan and in his final words, even addressed this letter to “all Koreans living in Japan.” Reading the letter gives the impression that North Korea is rather insecure about Chongryon’s ideological and cultural alignment. The suggestion to keep close relationships with Mindan feels just as perfunctory as North Korea’s emphasis on the reunification of the peninsula or its insistence on democracy. In this sense, Chongryon is a miniature version of the North Korean regime. Torn between reality and ideology, Chongryon will continue to struggle with the contradiction between its ideological stance and its actions.

Voices among the Korean community in Japan are now rising against Chongyron, asking, as one 2016 article did, what good Chongryon has done for Koreans in Japan. Members are continuing to withdraw their allegiance and connection to the North Korean regime and Chongryon. The current membership includes 70,000 members, but considering that roughly half own South Korean or Japanese citizenship, it’s likely that numbers will continue to fall.

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Yet, as mentioned above, Chongryon is more than a cultural, ideological community. It is an intimately entangled economic community within which members make a living, receive education, and feel a sense of belonging as a foreigner in a homogeneous Japan. Thus, Chongryon will likely continue on — a paradoxical entity residing in adversarial land, continuously defeating its own words with its actions, but on the other hand fulfilling its role as a diplomatic channel between Japan and North Korea. Meanwhile, its members live their lives like any other citizen in a capitalistic state, making a living from within their community.

Yaechan Lee is an M.A. Candidate in International Relations at Peking University.