Korean minority in Japan loosens ties to homeland

Many favor assimilation with host country over nationalistic fervor


TOKYO -- On the walls of the classrooms are stern portraits of North Korea's late "Great Leader" and his son the "Dear Leader," and a huge banner on the gymnasium declares, "Great Leader Marshal Kim Il Sung Is With Us Forever."

But it is obvious that this high school is in Tokyo, not North Korea, when a cluster of giggly teeny-boppers bounce up and test their English by asking about something really important to 16-year-old hearts.

"Do you like the Backstreet Boys?" asked Yun Mi Hyang, a junior at the Korean High School in Tokyo, and she and her friends paused breathlessly. "You know, the Backstreet Boys. Kevin! Nick! Brian! Oh, they are so great! The best American band. I love their music."

Yun and the other students at the Korean High School come across, in short, as the world's funkiest Stalinists. But the 137 North Korea-backed schools in Japan -- partly financed by North Korea and run by North Koreans who are long-term residents of Japan -- are caught in a growing crisis, for it is becoming ever more difficult to balance loyalties to Great Leaders and to the Backstreet Boys.

More broadly, the 650,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan -- by far Japan's largest minority -- seem to be at a crossroads and increasingly to be choosing the Japanese path rather than the Korean path. After a half-century in which the Korean population in Japan bridled and fought constantly with its hosts, it is becoming more subdued, and every year more than 10,000 Koreans are taking Japanese citizenship.

"Intermarriage is increasing, and taking of Japanese nationality is increasing," Ku Dae Sok, the principal of the Korean High School, said glumly as he sat in a spacious office with memorabilia of Kim Il Sung scattered on the shelves. "So I think the trend for Koreans here is headed downhill."

Today's Koreans in Japan are mostly the grandchildren of those who were brought here to work as manual laborers when Korea was a Japanese colony early in this century.

Most were from what is now South Korea, but in the postwar era many were contemptuous of the American-backed government in the South. Many Koreans felt that the true nationalistic credentials belonged to Kim Il Sung, who fought Japanese troops during World War II and who established a fervently nationalistic government in the North.

The upshot was that most of Japan's Koreans initially inclined toward the North, not so much because of its Communist political system as because of patriotism.

Japan discriminated harshly against the Koreans, even after the war, and that cemented the nationalistic tendencies of the Korean minority. The discrimination continues today, for Japan's Education Ministry, which has traditionally been as prone to hard-line ideologies as North Korea itself, bars graduates of Korean schools from even applying to enter Japan's prestigious national universities.

Yet the broader reason for the crisis in the Korean schools has to do with changes among the Koreans themselves.

"The original purpose of the schools was to prepare Koreans so that they could go back to their homeland," said So Chung On, an official of the pro-North Korean Chosun Soren organization in Japan. "But now young people have no intention of going back to their homeland.

"Taking account of that reality, our organization has been trying to modify the contents of the education," So added. One result is that the North Korean schools in Japan now study much less politics and ideology, and the curriculum is fairly similar to that of Japanese schools, except that classes are all conducted in the Korean language.

This flexibility in the curriculum has helped preserve the support of some Korean parents, but even so, attendance of Korean schools has fallen to 17,000 today, compared with 35,000 in 1967. That reflects a significant waning of support for North Korea in recent years among Japan's Korean population.

Korean families in Japan used to send $100 million or more each year in hard currency to North Korea, but now the aid has fallen to a small fraction of that. One reason is the current recession in Japan, but more important is that some Koreans in Japan look to North Korea and now see not inspiration, but rather something closer to embarrassment.

In contrast, as South Korea has prospered and democratized and emerged from beneath the American thumb, it has steadily gained support. Now more Koreans in Japan are aligned with South Korea than with the North.

What keeps the North Koreans going, it seems, is not ideology or politics, but nationalism and loyalty, for many still believe that North Korea is far more authentically Korean than the South, which they see as run by American quislings. Moreover, most Korean families in Japan chose their sides a generation or two ago, and switching camps now would be an unimaginable betrayal.

Pub Date: 5/11/99

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