While Japan ponders nuclear crisis, N. Korean residents face backlash

June 16, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- When hundreds of policemen searched 27 homes and offices connected with the North Korean General Residents' Association in the city of Kyoto last week, they had a pretty weak complaint for the spectacular raid: Association members allegedly failed to properly register land they had purchased for a new school.

But even that purported crime fell apart soon after the raid. Within hours, city officials apologized, saying that proper procedures had indeed been followed.

A police error? Maybe not. Some say the incident is part of a backlash against the 250,000 ethnic North Koreans living in Japan. Besides police raids, the tide of anti-Korean feelings include dozens of skinhead attacks on North Korean schoolchildren, who have been taunted, beaten and stoned.

Informal crackdowns have occurred in the past when tensions with North Korea have suddenly increased. In 1988, shortly after the fatal bombing of a South Korean plane, there were more than 300 incidents of North Korean school children's being bullied, with several pushed onto railroad tracks in the path of oncoming trains and a few being slashed.

At one high school for ethnic North Korean pupils, 400 police arrived at the end of spring vacation several years ago, contending that a student had failed to notify authorities about an address change, said a teacher, Hong Sam Kim. As in other raids, large amounts of records were taken and never returned.

Besides the recent raid in Kyoto, 1,400 police in Osaka raided another school, said Kwan Ik Choe, a spokesman for the Korean association, the semi-official conduit between Pyongyang and the ethnic North Koreans, most of whom are Japanese-born descendants of forced laborers brought over in the first half of the century from Northern Korea and who still identify with the North over the South.

"They went into Kyoto to get internal information not related to the school," said Mr. Choe. Otherwise, "why did they search without checking the facts?"

"We expect more of these will happen in the future," he said. "We expect police to find tiny things [pretexts] to make raids."

The headquarters of the residents association says numerous threatening telephone calls come in daily, while outside its walled compound in central Tokyo vans with huge speakers affixed to their roofs routinely cruise by spouting anti-North Korean rhetoric.

Authorities also report that dozens of North Korean schoolchildren have been attacked by Japanese hooligans, who identify their victims by their prim and proper appearance.

With her braided hair, bangs, and modest long dress, 16-year-old Mih Yang Chong has a look of youthful innocence most other teen-agers have long since shed.

But her distinctive pleated uniforms also identify her as a North Korean; the dresses are worn exclusively by North Korean schoolgirls here.

Ms. Chong was assaulted while riding the subway to school in late April. She was forced off the train, and her dress was slashed. A 23-year-old Japanese street tough -- shaved head, loud clothes -- was arrested, fined and released.

"It has gotten much worse," said Sang U Lee, of the education bureau of the residents association.

Japan's actions against its North Korean residents contrast with its paralysis in dealing with North Korea's nuclear program. In parliamentary debates on the crisis, the government has groped for a cohesive response, leaning at one moment toward supporting U.S.-led sanctions, then recoiling the next.

Pressure on Japan to take a stand has become particularly intense because North Koreans living here are thought by many to provide a crucial financial lifeline of hard-currency remittances to their old home -- a charge the association denies.

A strong split exists among the numerous political groups chaotically occupying the center of Japan's government today, with a crucial group of parliamentarians opposing efforts to clamp down on North Korea because of Japan's blood-stained history on the Korean Peninsula.

Any response, said Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata, must take into account the "unbearable suffering" and "unbearable sorrow" Japan inflicted during its colonial occupation, which ended in 1945.

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