Death of Kim brings thaw in Japan

July 14, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- What a difference a death makes.

Last week, Kim Il Sung, the dictator of North Korea, was reviled here as wily and dangerous. Today, he is receiving the deference accorded to "the Great Leader of North Korea," just as his propaganda machine always said he deserved.

This dramatic shift in feelings about an entire nation is evident at the headquarters of the North Korean Residents Association. Not far from the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo, it is North Korea's unofficial embassy and the focal point of 250,000 Koreans living in Japan.

Only last month, the walled, eight-story building was as carefully guarded and shuttered as a central bank. Entry required checking in at a guard station, several phone calls and identification checks.

In many ways it was as isolationist as the country it represented. Numerous threatening phone calls were received daily. Outside, trucks with mounted loudspeakers driven by Japan's notorious right-wingers provided a persistent wail of anti-North Korean diatribes.

The calls and the audio attack have ceased since Saturday's announcement of Kim Il Sung's death on Friday.

"North Korea's in transition, so there is no reason for trouble," said a bored police officer, one of many stationed discreetly around the area.

Shortly after the announcement of Mr. Kim's death, tensions were high. Local memorial services were to be for members only. And no one in the association, despite its close ties to North Korea, was to cross the Sea of Japan to attend Mr. Kim's funeral in Pyongyang.

By Sunday, attitudes had begun to soften both in Japan and in North Korea. More than 30 association members left for Pyongyang on Tuesday, and more than 100 association members are poised to sail.

Struck by the desire of Japanese leaders and business people to express their condolences, the association began allowing a few people into its cloistered building, five initially, than 40 to 50 on Monday.

On Tuesday, an official three-day condolence period was established. Some 350 people visited almost immediately and about 450 more yesterday. Included were senior mem

bers of almost every Japanese political faction, whose statements of sympathy were carefully transcribed for publication in an official North Korean newspaper.

Among the visitors was Toshiki Kaifu, a former prime minister and recent candidate for reinstatement. Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama sent condolences by telegram and, reflecting the artful way politics are played here, signed not as prime minister, but as head of the Socialist Party, which has long had a warm relationship with Pyongyang.

In an effort to explain the extraordinary shift in attitude, So Chung On, deputy section chief for the association, said, "The situation on the Korean Peninsula has been getting better recently, and our situation [in Japan] is always connected."

The first indications that a turn might be imminent came about a month ago, when concerns were rising over North Korea's nuclear program and the possibility of another Korean war. A number of girls attending residents association schools, with long, pleated, uniform dresses that identified them as North Koreans, were attacked on subways, their dresses slashed.

The incidents came after other forms of harassment, but seemed to strike a deeper chord in Japan, where incidents of violence and confrontation are rare. Many Japanese expressed disgust and urged better treatment for North Koreans.

Negotiations between Mr. Kim and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in late June seemed to further diminish tensions, but it was only with Mr. Kim's death that the feelings became visceral. The impact has struck even those at the heart of the association, who have long been steeped in heroic tales of Mr. Kim.

"Now that all these people come to visit -- all the press, all the

people from foreign embassies -- I realize how much [Mr. Kim] meant," said Kyon Hui Shin, 22. "Before, he was somebody who was very far away. But now that he is dead, I realize that I am saddened, and I realize how important he was."

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