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Chongryon’s Assimilation to Japan

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Adapting to another culture which is outwardly hostile toward one’s home country is a complex and identity-conflicting task. Any and all exchanges as an act of international diplomacy between the two representative leaders are scrutinized, analyzed in national media portraying the other as a volatile and unpredictable agent, and the respective individual often becomes the subject of blatant discrimination in the host community. These are the challenges faced by the 150,000 Koreans residing in Japan that identify with North Korea, officially known as The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.

Otherwise referred to as Chongryon, this community is a part of the second largest ethnic minority group in Japan, Zainichi, who are permanent residents of Japan (Cho, 1997). They trace their roots back to the 1910s when the Japanese military brought Koreans to the country during its annexation of Korea to fill the lack of human labor, serve in their military, and work as sex slaves (Harris, 2017). After the Japanese annexation and following the Korean war, Chongryon were provisionally registered as Joseon nationals (Brasor, 2016). The members aligned themselves with North Korea, benefitting from the large donations received from the Kim regime that helped establish tens of banks and parlors as well as 64 schools (Park, 2018). Due to such benefits, the people refused to change their nationality to South Korean and sent their profits back to North Korea, which at one point was valued at $25 billion (Harris, 2017). This set the apparatus for the establishment of a North Korean community in Japan with its own schools, language, and businesses.

Fast forward six decades to an unprecedented phenomenon of the same community having loyal devotion to the Kim regime in a nation which considers North Korea a threat with strong condemnation of its missile launches. In fact, Japan only recognizes South Korea as the legitimate government of Korea, the judicial reason for why Chongryon cannot be granted nationality as North Koreans, but must retain their Joseon nationality (Cho, 1997). Over three generations, the community has become more steadfast to the North Korean regime and its values; the students of the schools wear traditional Korean clothes during class period, sing praises of Chairman Kim, and are taught that Kim Il Sung was born through a strike of lightening as an act of God (Lee, 2019).

Furthermore, they oppose movements advocating Zainichi Koreans to participate in Japanese politics or seek naturalization in the belief that it weakens the Korean identity despite the limitations of being a Chongryon (Onishi, 2005). The current legal status as Joseon nationals entails that they cannot take national exams to become a civil servant or a public official and must acquire travel documents to go abroad (Lee, 2019). Even when abroad, they are most always stopped at the gate for property searches and are automatically considered North Korean despite their technical stateless status as the state of Joseon no longer exists. Chongryon member Kim Yun-ok states, "We are obliged to sign a piece of paper in a small room that guarantees we are not involved with any nuclear weapons in order to go on trips (Park, 2018).” Even within the nation, though they have social security numbers, they are subject to harsh discrimination due to their adherence to the North Korean regime to the extent many prefer to hide their identity as Chongryon in the community (Onishi, 2005). Despite such inconveniences, the survival of this extraordinary community is attributed to the lack of state-level and community-level pressure to adhere to the Japanese community, which deters assimilation for the North Korean diaspora community.

Defined as an “ethnic minority group of migrant origins residing and acting in host countries, but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin or their homelands,” a diaspora is characterized by its identity of hybridity (Brinkerhoff, 2008). Neither completely one or the other, it shares characteristics of both its home-land and host-land. Depending on the host environment and the difficulty level of remaining ties to the home-land, there is a fourfold classification of diaspora: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization (Bhatia and Ram, 2001). According to Bhatia and Ram (2001), assimilation occurs when the individual suspends contact with the homeland and abandons the associated cultural identity, while on the other end of the spectrum, separation occurs when the individual rejects contact with the host-land and values continued ties to the original culture. Integration and marginalization delineates the adherence to neither one or the other as integration adopts both cultures while marginalization rejects both.

In the individual’s decision of which strategy to adopt, pressure to assimilate by the state and community acts as key factors. When pushed to the extent of being unable function within the community if adherent to their home-land identity, the individual usually chooses to abandon the respective identity for their self-benefit, as observed with the Chinese Indonesians.

Having been subject to genocide under the New Order of the Suharto dictatorship in the 1996 to 1998, 1,200 Chinese Indonesians were murdered, dozens of women raped, and hundreds of shops burned to the ground (Emmerson, 2015). The reason for such hostility arose from the perceived economic threat of the Chinese in Southeast Asia as they, the region’s wealthiest business tycoons, constitute the world’s largest corporate conglomerates (Richburg, 1988). The communist history of China also perpetuated animosity as during the dictatorship, Indonesia was fighting communist insurgencies backed by Beijing to the extent of severing all relations with its government. These factors manifested domestically in the blatant discrimination and outlawing of Chinese language materials and the celebration of Chinese holidays such as the Chinese New Year (Bevins, 2017). Furthermore, the Chinese diaspora were forced to adopt Indonesian names and carry identity documents and found it extremely difficult to enter public schools or universities (Richburg, 1988). Pushed to such extremes, many abandoned their Chinese identity and (even though these discriminatory laws have been lifted) preferred their Indonesian identity because “people are still afraid to speak up (Bevins, 2017).” In fact, South Asia’s wealthiest trader Sudo Salim identifies with his Indonesian name even though his ethnic Chinese name is Liem Sioe Liong (Richburg, 1988).

Discrimination to these extremes does not exist in Japan toward the North Korean diaspora, but exists nonetheless. On the community-level, the perception of Chongryon was exacerbated when on September 17, 2002, the Japanese media reported that North Koreans had abducted a total of thirteen Japanese citizens during the 1970s and 80s, forcing them to teach Japanese to North Korean secret agents (Ryang, 2009). Within hours of the report, Chongryon members received death threats and female students had their school uniforms slashed on public transportation, were verbally abused, and were spat at (Ryang, 2009). The anti-sentiment also intensified intermittently after North Korean missile testing, when Japanese citizens took to the streets in front of Chongryon schools in Tokyo and protested against the regime and the Chongryon community (Harris, 2017). Zaitokukai, a far right political organization composed of around 10,000 members, vehemently opposes privileges afforded to all Zainichi. They protest against them using slogans such as “you should all be massacred,” and have been ordered by the Osaka High Court to pay 12 million yen in damages for violent protests organized in front of a Korean School in Kyoto in 2004 (Osaki, 2016). In an interview, a Zaitokukai member expressed his anti-sentiment by comparing the Chongryon schools to an Osama Bin Laden Memorial School in the United States (Harris, 2017). As signified, the Chongryon are not readily welcomed by the Japanese and are perceived as a separate entity of the nation, comparative to the sentiment and pressure observed towards the Chinese Indonesians to adopt the Indonesian identity.

This isolationist perspective adopted by the Japanese encourages Chongryon to create an exclusive community of their own. As Joseon nationals, they are subject to structural discrimination and have difficulty finding professional jobs, left mainly work in pachinko (gaming), yakiniku (meat restaurants), and construction. In fact, 90% of the annual sales of pachinko, at 30 trillion yen since 1993, were generated by Chongryon and Zainichi Koreans (Buckley, 2003). Many parents who cannot find viable alternative employment send their children to Chongryon schools to become a part of the community which provides prioritized job opportunities to fellow members (Harris, 2017). The possession of a socially unaccepted nationality and subjugation brings the members of the Chongryon community closer to one another as they seek acceptance, identity, and community within the overtly hostile nation. It also leads them to become interdependent and reliant on the community by posting jobs and sharing news about North Korea through their homepage, which is filled with propaganda and slogans operated by the Kim regime (Lee, 2018). The website includes commemoratory comments about Kim Jong Un, referring to him as the “One Mighty Sun" and also antagonizes the Japanese by stating in their introduction page that the Japanese “stole their homes and people” as well as “brutally suppressed, arrested, imprisoned, and killed our innocent people” (The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, 2019). Thus, the structural discrimination against the Chongryon enforces North Korean conformist values, which in turn strengthens their identification with the regime.

Additionally, the principal reason for the survival of the Chongryon is the lack of state-level pressure to adhere to the Japanese community, ultimately deterring assimilation to the Japanese culture. The absence of pressure is not due to lack of effort but is because the Chongryon fall outside the Japanese state apparatus. It serves as North Korea’s de facto embassy and has been exempt from property taxes since 1972 (Kyodo, 2015), when Marxist Tokyo governor Ryokichi Minobe recognized the offices as equivalent to diplomatic missions (BBC, 2003). Moreover, the Chongryon schools are not accredited as degree-granting institutions, preventing the interference of the Japanese Ministry of Education (Lee, 2017). Their focus on North Korea, the teaching of the Korean language, and loyalty to the North Korean leadership all fall outside of the Japanese state apparatus. As the community is an entity outside the control of the Japanese government, the state cannot apply pressure to assimilate and acts as an inviolable sovereign.

Nevertheless, the survival of the Chongryon resulted from the lack of state-level and community-level pressure to adhere to the Japanese community and continues to be a rare phenomenon of a diaspora that fervently opposes assimilation. Members have little to no interest in assimilating to the antagonized Japanese community and hope to retain their Korean identity, circumventing the geographical and temporal obstacles. With its distinctive qualities as a channel between Japan and North Korea, Chongryon will continue to carry out its diplomatic role in the hopes of pleasing their Dear Leader, who in 2015, sent a personal letter to Chongryon 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” (Lee, 2018).

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


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