OSAKA, Japan—When students stroll into any of the 120 or so private elementary and high schools operated for ethnic Koreans by an association in Japan, they enter virtual tiny enclaves of North Korea.
Portraits of Kim Il Sung, the deceased Stalinist founder of North Korea, hang on many walls. In the classrooms, teachers instill reverence for Kim.
"One day, when my second daughter was in kindergarten, she saw azaleas in the park," recalled Hong Kyong Ui, a third-generation ethnic Korean. "She said, `This is the flower that Great Leader Kim Il Sung likes,' rather than saying it was a beautiful flower."
It might seem peculiar that in democratic, prosperous and modern Japan, ethnic Koreans are taught to admire North Korea, a famine-ravaged country with less freedom than any other nation on Earth.
But in the past 50 years, facing discrimination in Japan, many Korean immigrants took refuge in one of two groups—one with ties to North Korea, the other linked to South Korea. Recent efforts to heal the divide have only been shattered by new frictions over North Korea's military rise.
Japan has 500,000 to 600,000 ethnic Koreans, descendants of those who arrived before or during World War II as forced laborers or economic migrants.
Stripped of citizenship and denied basic rights, many of the Korean immigrants took refuge in a Korean group as they tried to survive in a hostile nation.
"Since you couldn't get Japanese citizenship, in order to be part of a community, you had to belong to either one group or the other," said Park Sil, an ethnic Korean in nearby Kyoto. "People had to belong to some group to have an identity."
Many ethnic Koreans chose to join the pro-Pyongyang Generation Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chosun Soren, even though their ancestral home was in what's now South Korea. After all, until the early 1980s, industrialized North Korea, with help from the Soviet Union, was on an economic par with South Korea.
"There was a general belief that North Korea was stable, yes, small and poor, but there was really genuine mass support for North Korea and North Korean organizations," said Sonia Ryang, an anthropologist at the University of Iowa who's an ethnic Korean raised in Japan.
The eight-story Chosun Soren headquarters in Tokyo serves as North Korea's de facto embassy. Its lobby has a mural of Kim Il Sung and his son, leader Kim Jong Il.
For decades, in addition to providing social and educational services, Chosun Soren served as a cover for illicit activities, funneling hundreds of millions of dollars a year in the 1990s to Pyongyang, some of it from profitable pinball parlors. It also was entrusted with gaining technology for Pyongyang's defense.
"One of their tasks was to assist North Korea in espionage activities in Japan," said Hajime Izumi, a scholar on North Korea at Shizuoka University.
A ferry between North Korea and Niigata, a port in northern Japan, was known to smuggle material and money for North Korea. The ferry has since been suspended after North Korea's series of missile launches on July 5.
"Chosun Soren's biggest contribution is to establish a military industry in North Korea," said Hataru Nomura, a journalist and co-author of a book on the group.
But the passage of time has sapped Chosun Soren and the pro-Seoul group, known as Mindan. Some of Mindan's leaders identify more with dictatorial regimes of the past than with modern South Korean democrats. Moreover, younger ethnic Koreans have intermarried with Japanese, weakening their ties to the Korean Peninsula.
Chosun Soren is believed to have only 60,000 members now, down from 220,000 in 1995. Mindan may have 400,000 supporters.
"I am married to a Japanese. Both of my sons are married to Japanese," said Park, the Kyoto activist. "Eighty-eight percent of Koreans in Japan are married to Japanese."
It wasn't until 1981 that ethnic Koreans could visit North Korea and gain re-entry to Japan. Among those who have traveled regularly to Pyongyang since then is Hong Kyong Ui, the father of the girl who identifies azaleas with North Korea's former leader. Now 47 years old, Hong is typical of the ethnic Koreans who both bristle at the discrimination in Japan, yet grapple with disillusionment with their Korean group.
In high school, Hong was known by his Japanese name, Takayoshi Mitsui, and by most counts blended in easily, speaking flawless Japanese. He was captain of the school soccer team when he felt the first sting of discrimination.
"The coach told me, `You can't compete in the national tournament because you are Korean,'" Hong recalled. "At that moment, I began to face my roots."
After graduating from law school, Hong went to work for Chosun Soren for 23 years, much of the time in Osaka, home to the greatest concentration of ethnic Koreans. His doubts about the group's methods and its slavish support for North Korea grew. In 2004, he set up a Web page calling for democracy in Chosun Soren and was promptly sacked. Hong is aware that his rebellion would have brought far more serious consequences in North Korea.
"I have been told by friends in human rights associations, `You'd be shot by now,'" Hong said.
When a Chosun Soren newspaper printed that he was a spy for South Korea and a police snitch, Hong sued. On Sept. 19, he won a judgment for $17,000 and an apology.
Reconciliatory breezes from the peninsula swept into Japan earlier this year. In May, leaders of the groups met for the first time. But the warming ended with North Korea's July missile salvo, and hostility to Chosun Soren supporters soared. Many in Japan feel threatened by North Korea and demonize the group's members.
"This is a very hard time for them," Park said.
Assailants have punched and kicked students wearing traditional Korean dress. Students at Chosun schools now wear Japanese uniforms, then switch into Korean-style uniforms at school.
Many Japanese harbor contradictory feelings about the Koreas.
"They love South Korean soap opera, and they love South Korean popular culture. But they hate North Korea," said Ryang, the U.S. academic. Speaking of students at the Chosun Soren schools, where she herself was educated, she added: "They are made soft targets of the hostile reaction."
Enrollment at Chosun Soren schools has dropped, although many ethnic Koreans dearly want their offspring to retain the Korean language and culture.
"Everybody knows that the only way for them to keep their ethnicity is through the Chosun schools. ... Even the Mindan people want to send their kids to Chosun schools to keep the tradition and language alive," said Mun Kwang Woo, a senior official at Chosun headquarters in Tokyo.
Some experts say it's the discrimination in Japan toward ethnic Koreans that keeps Chosun Soren alive at all. Only recently has Japan allowed ethnic Koreans to keep their Korean names when obtaining citizenship. Many ethnic Koreans feel like outsiders and have little desire to integrate.
"There are fourth-generation Koreans who have been here their whole lives and can't vote because they haven't become Japanese," Park said.
He noted how procedures at city halls for citizenship require a great deal of kowtowing, and citizenship is bestowed begrudgingly to other ethnicities.
"You have to bow so many times," Park said. "Your pride and dignity are lost."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Emi Doi in Tokyo contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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