9/17 and After: Japan - North Korea Relations and their Implications for Minority Rights and Media Discourse in Japan

Kang Sangjung


Background: The Korean Community in Japan

Japan today has over a million foreign residents, both documented and undocumented. Amongst them, people of “Korean heritage” occupy more than 50% of the total. They can be divided into “old-comers” (who arrived during the colonial period) and new-comers (who came to Japan thereafter). It may seem strange that many of the old-comers who have resided in Japan for more than half a century have still not obtained Japanese nationality. One might expect that they would adopt the nationality of their host society. But, on the contrary, after more than half a century, there are still approximately 550, 000 people of Korean descent living in Japan without Japanese citizenship.

These include some 150.000 people who have “North Korean” nationality. Some of them identify themselves as citizens of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, while others see themselves as belonging to neither “North” nor “South”, but rather have a sense of belonging to a unified ethnic Korea. There are around 400,000 people who are citizens of the Republic of Korea. In addition, there are also considerable numbers of people who have already acquired Japanese citizenship. Therefore, the matter of nationality is very complex and it is impossible to fix people into a single category.

Moreover, identity is not a stable and objective attribute, but rather changes according to the subjective values and life purposes of individuals, so that those who are called “the Korean minority” are in fact a group of people with a diverse identity. I am often introduced in English as a “Korean Japanese”, but this is incorrect. I am Korean by nationality. There 550, 000 people like me in Japan. This is important because although there are 1.5 million Koreans in America and 3 million members of the Korean diaspora in Northeast Asia, only the group that live in Japan have not obtained the nationality of their host society.

It goes without saying that the division of the Korean peninsula had an enormous impact on Koreans in Japan. If the Korean peninsula were a unified nation, the Korean community in Japan would not be divided in such a complicated way. The realities of international relations greatly complicate matters. The Republic of Japan and Korea concluded the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, normalising diplomatic relations, in 1965. But still there are no diplomatic relations between Japan and present-day North Korea. Globally, I think it is an extremely rare phenomenon to have a situation where, for more than half a century, diplomatic relations have not been normalised between a former colony and the former suzerain state. It is difficult fully to comprehend current debates without understanding these historical details.

The September 17 Korean Talks

On September 17, 2002, the leaders of North Korea and Japan met for the first time in 50 years since the liberation of the Korean Peninsula and held a summit aimed at settling the problem of reparations for Japanese colonial rule and achieving the normalization of diplomatic relations. At that summit, the issue of the kidnapping of a number of Japanese citizens by North Korea was raised. It is unclear whether the body originally responsible for carrying out these kidnappings was the North Korean Worker's Party or a government organization, but the news that North Korea had admitted abducting ordinary Japanese citizens, and that some of those kidnapped were still living there, sent shockwaves through Japanese society.

I see the events of “9/11” and “9/17” as parallel phenomena. The result of both has been a major shift in Japanese foreign policy and security policy – a transformation unprecedented in post war Japan. The key feature of this shift was the introduction of State of Emergency legislation. Plans for this legislation began from around the time of 9/11, but 9/17 provided the opportunity for its enactment. New measures also include tighter restrictions on the cross-border transfer of funds, which mean that remittances sent by Koreans living in Japan to North Korea can be regulated or stopped.

Between 1959 and 1980, some 97, 000 Zainichi Koreans returned to live in North Korea. Many kinds of exchange have continued between returned relatives to North Korea and the Japanese Korean community. However, this exchange came to be assailed with restrictions. If we regard this state of affairs from the perspective that freedom of communication, correspondence, and movement should be guaranteed, regardless of the region or country in which one lives than this is an extremely important problem closely related to state infringements of human rights.

Japanese Media Coverage of North Korea

Within this larger framework then, what are the characteristics of Japanese media coverage of North Korea? In short, I think it may be described as a discourse of polarization. In his essays following 9/11, the late Edward Said described polarization as one peculiarity of the media in America response of the attacks. “Our side” and “their side,” “Axis of Evil” and “democratic countries”: media coverage had drawn a clear line of separation between “them” and “us”. On the television and in newspapers and magazines in Japan too, such polarization is rife. The 20 million people of North Korea are discussed as a uniform, faceless mass, and as subjects of mob psychology. The only one portrayed as having some kind of personality is the so-called “supreme leader” Kim Jong-Il. For example, a comic book Introduction to Kim Jong-Il , for example, drawn by a Korean artist but translated into Japanese, has sold between 300,000 and 400,000 copies. This too depicts the people of North Korea in terms of mob psychology, with only “individual” being the dictator, who is presented in heavily caricatured style.

I personally felt a sense of déjà vu about this phenomenon. There were strong resonances in my mind with the media reports of a scene where a crowd gathered around the US Embassy at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 were screaming ‘Allah –u-Akbar.' [God is Great] At that time, there was a grave confrontation between the Carter Administration and the Republic of Iran. In this context, the Western media distorted the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian / Islamic Revolution as an utterly grotesque, fanatical religious figure. The actual people living in Iran were treated as an anonymous mass driven by group hysteria. I was then a postgraduate student in the Former West Germany. An Iranian student, who lived in the same student dormitory as me, told me how his mother was killed by the secret police under the Pahlevi Dynasty. I suddenly realised that, far from simply being the product of mass fanaticism, the Iranian Revolution arose from the combined experiences of individuals like that student.

The media coverage of North Korean in Japan over the past two years reminds me of the media coverage of the West during the Iranian Revolution that occurred 20 years ago in 1979. From the time of the death of President Kim Il-Sung in 1994, there have been increasing problems in the media coverage of North Korea. In 2003, some 500 books related to North Korea were published in Japan, and most were extremely sensational in content. One television director told me that reporting on North Korea boosted programs' ratings, while reporting (for example) on Iraq did not. It is important to consider why the issue of North Korea produced such high ratings, and why other important issues are so comprehensively neglected.

The Absence of Media Reporting on Ethnic Harassment

While North Korea evokes such attention-grabbing reportage, the phenomenon ethnic harassment is a major problem which barely rates a mention in the media. In Japan there are numerous schools created by and for ethnic minority communities. There are some 70 schools, including primary, middle, and high schools and a university, established as educational institutions for members of the North Korean community in Japan, as well as 4 South Korean affiliated schools. The central problem is the harassment towards students on their way to and from North Korean affiliated school in Japan. In these schools there are in fact not just students with North Korean citizenship, but also those with South Korean and Japanese nationality.

Recently young volunteer lawyer undertook a questionnaire on ethnic harassment. This was published by Nihon Hyôronsha under the title The Koreans Next-door: Zainichi Koreans and Japanese Society . This volume revealed the existence of harassment in diverse forms, including violence such as physical and verbal abuse. The subjects of harassment in this survey were small children of elementary and middle school age, and the majority of them were female. This may seem hard understand, both in Japan and overseas, but the ethnic schools specify that female students wear ‘national dress' uniforms ( minzoku fuku ) . Stipulating that school uniforms must be national dress is a phenomenon unique to Zainichi Korean schools. Harassment therefore is often directed towards students wearing these ethnically symbolic clothes.

The findings of the study showed that some of the children surveyed gave very mature and reflective responses to questions about harassment. For example, some made comments such as: “We also need to become aware of the bias of ethnic education we receive in school,” and “We also want to think about the national crime of abduction.” However, it is clear that many children are left emotionally scarred by the trauma of harassment. Despite these experiences, the key conclusion of the survey is that the children unanimously expressed a desire to live together with Japanese people.

The absence of coverage of ethnic harassment in the Japanese media is a serious problem. Third or fourth generation children living in Japan who are identified as “North Korean” are treated as the “enemy within.” There is a need to analyse the causes of this form of media fanaticism. It has been suggested that, following closely on the heels of the Aum gas attack in Tokyo, and the subsequent hysterical fear of the Aum Cult, reporting on North Korea was shaped by the same rhetorical structure, with North Korea filling the role of “Evil Cult” complete with sinister leader, and members of the North Korean community in Japan thus being cast in the mould of threatening “outsiders”, just as the members of the Aum sect were.

Towards the Future: An experiment by a Zainichi Korean

How then are Zainichi Koreans attempting to deal with this situation? One positive step has been the setting up of a new non-profit organisation The Korean NGO Center , opened in May 2004. This is an NGO group formed through the amalgamation of the Ethnic Education Culture Center [ Minzoku kyôiku bunka sentâ ] , the Zainichi Korean Council for Democracy and Human Rights [ Zainichi kankoku minshu jinken kyôgikai ], and the One Korean Festival. Themes of this NGO are democracy and human rights, and the formation of civil society that crosses over national borders. For that purpose, thought is being directed at how to deal with the various kinds of harassment that are occurring in contemporary Japan, and how best to undertake the activities of the organisation such as the sending of humanitarian aid to North Korea. Such emerging movements by Zainichi Koreans, which go beyond the narrow bounds of nationality, suggest one was of moving forward from the “polarized discourse” of the past two years.


About the Author

Kang Sangjung is a Professor of the University of Tokyo, Leibnitz Visiting Professor at Leipzig University, and a member of the editorial board of Asiarights

(Text translated and edited by Risa Tokunaga, Tim Amos and Tessa Morris-Suzuki)


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