Chosen Soren, a state for leftist Koreans in Japan

Recently I was interviewing a North Korean refugee, a woman in her 50s. In passing she mentioned that she saw her first US movie in 1987 or 1988 while living in a North Korean countryside. I was surprised and asked how that could possibly be case.

In those days in North Korea, Western movies would not be shown at theaters, and a VCR would probably be more expensive in relative terms than a brand new Jaguar would be now in the United States. She explained that she saw it in the house of her neighbours who had a VCD due to the fact that they were returnees from Japan. Indeed, for near forty years, ‘Japanese returnees’ constituted an unusually affluent group within North Korean society. Nowadays, their glory has passed almost completely.

These people found themselves in North Korea under a rather peculiar set of circumstances. Starting from the 1930s, Japan began to import labor from Korea in large quantities. Some people (like, say, parents of the incumbent South Korean President Lee Myung-bak) went there voluntarily whilst many others were forcibly mobilized. At any rate, by 1945, there were over two million ethnic Koreans residing in Japan. Most of them were to move back immediately after Japan’s surrender at the end of World War Two. But some 700,000 would elect to stay in Japan, often because they had no place to go.

Those left behind in Japan were to find themselves the victims of social discrimination, both institutionalized and informal. In 1952, most of the ethnic Koreans were deprived of Japanese citizenship. In 1952, they also lost their right to public housing and a number of welfare benefits. Most of them had to survive by doing unskilled, low paid jobs. These official discriminatory measures were further reinforced by the generally contemptuous attitude that Japanese society took to them.

Facing such discrimination, and being, overwhelmingly, members of the urban proletariat, many of the ethnic Koreans naturally gravitated towards the Japanese hard-core Left and became active supporters of the Japanese Communist Party. Soon though, a major disagreement arose among Korean expat community leaders. While all agreed that both the nation and communism were important, some believed that Koreans’ nationalist goals should be given clear priority over the international goals of the world communist movement. These people who can be described as left-leaning nationalists with strong sympathy towards Pyongyang, were soon to establish contacts with the North Korean government, and eventually won the support of the majority in the ethnic Korean community.

In December 1955, The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (known short-hand in Korean as Chongryon and in Japanese as Chosen Soren)was established by the leftist nationalists. Soon after its foundation, Chosen Soren boasted a massive support within community, with some three hundred thousand members. All of these people by default were considered to be citizens of North Korea, even though the overwhelming majority of them were essentially born in the southern part of the Korean peninsula or in Japan and never seen their supposed ‘native country’.

In due time, Chosen Soren was to become a state-within-a-state. It had its own corporations, newspapers, financial institutions and, significantly, it ran its own network of Korean-language schools. Like was the case with schools in North Korea proper, the classrooms were adorned with the portraits of Great Leader Kim Il Sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. The school curriculum taught ethnic Korean children about the affluence enjoyed by their brethren in North Korea. In due time, the writings of Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung would also become an obligatory element within the school curriculum.

From the very beginning, it was assumed that the ultimate goal of Chosen Soren was to engineer the sending (euphemistically known as ‘repatriation’) of all its members to North Korea. As recent research by Tessa Morris-Suzuki indicates, the idea essentially originated in Japanese right-wing political circles. These people perceived the militantly anti-Japanese, pro-Pyongyang Korean association as a potential fifth column, even more so since close interactions between Chosen Soren and North Korea’s intelligence agencies were an open secret at the time.

Needless to say, the initiative was much welcomed in Pyongyang as well as by the Japanese left – politics does indeed sometimes produce strange bedfellows. Technically the repatriation began in 1959 and lasted until 1984, but the vast majority of some 93,000 Korean returnees left Japan for North Korea in the early 1960s.

They expected to find themselves in the paradise presented to them in the glossy propaganda magazines of North Korea (and also much extolled by the Japanese Left). Their first impressions however were decidedly disappointing, and alas, not misleading. The point of almost all arrivals from Japan was the dirty and visibly poor port of Wonsan on the East Coast of North Korea. If the returnees were greeted by earlier arrivals, they were often quietly told that they had made a terrible mistake which unfortunately could not be fixed. Indeed, this was a decisively one-way trip. Once returnees disembarked from the ship, they would have to stay in North Korea for the rest of their lives (most of them did not realize this when they boarded the ship in the Japanese port of Niigata).

North Korea of the 1960s was a poor and repressive society – in a sense, it was remarkably more Stalinist than Stalin’s Russia, which was what it was emulating. Returnees from Japan were bitterly disappointed and, alas, their experiences in Japan had not taught them to keep their mouths shut. As one North Korean woman told me whilst talking about these people in the 1970s, “They came from a poorly controlled and liberal Japan. They did not know what must remain unsaid, and what could be said only with the most trusted friends”. Indeed from anecdotal evidence it seems that the average returnee faced unusually high chances of being arrested for making subversive statements about the Glorious Party or Great Leader.

However, very soon, the North Korean authorities discovered that the new arrivals were valuable not only because some of them had useful skills and/or technical knowledge, but also because the community as a whole could be used to pump money from Japan. Whilst North Koreans were not allowed to write and send letters overseas, an exception was made for returnees. They were allowed to stay in touch with their relatives back in Japan and most of them would use this opportunity to ask for money and other forms of material support.

Family ties were very strong among the Koreans of their generation, so requests were usually satisfied. It did help also that income gap between Japan and North Korea, already huge in the 1960s, kept growing in the subsequent decades. As a result, sums that would make a real difference for the returnees were comparatively small for the average family back in Japan.

Visits were encouraged as well, but it was nearly always visits from Japan to North Korea. The visitors came with bagloads of household items, consumer electronics and of course, fat envelopes stuffed with Japanese yen.

These developments soon became known in Japan and by the mid-1960s, interest in returning to the fatherland dwindled. Ideological fiction was maintained though, for the next few decades. With the passage of time however, the influence of Chosen Soren declined. The second and third generation of ethnic Koreans were much more ready to integrate into Japanese society and at the same time, anti-Korean racism in Japan began to decline significantly. Nonetheless, Chosen Soren remained a significant political and social force until the mid-1990s.

Meanwhile, the nearly 95,000 returnees maintained a strange existence in North Korea. They were simultaneously discriminated against and privileged. In most cases, they could not join the nomenklatura or make a serious career in the party-state, even though they could and often did become successful professionals, engineers and academics. At the same time, most of the returnees could rely on regular money transfers from Japan which made them remarkably wealthy by the then meager North Korean standards. They could eat well, they had TV sets and from the 1980s, even VCRs and fridges.

If their relatives in Japan were willing to make a particularly large ‘contribution’ to state coffers, they could even move to Pyongyang and, if the sum was sufficient enough, could find themselves in the first-class apartment, usually inhabited by army Generals and Central Committee officials. The sums we are talking about equate to around $10,000 USD in the 1980s – a substantial sum, no doubt, but one should consider the fact that if such apartments were sold on the then emerging real estate black market, they would felt a price three times higher.

Since the early 1990s, however, the situation for returnees deteriorated. Money transfers from Japan began to dry out very fast and as of today they are around 10% (or less) of what they used to be some 20 years ago. To some extent, this was the result of Japanese government policy: in the early 2000s, following the notorious abduction scandal, the Japanese government introduced a number of bans which heavily restricted trade with and private payments to North Korea.

To a much larger extent, though, the decline in remittances resulted from generational change and other changes in the ethnic Korean community. By the early 2000s, those people who once knew the returnees personally were in their late 60s or 70s. Actually, most of their immediate relatives were dead or dying. Needless to say, their second cousins or nephews are much less willing to provide for family members who once were naive enough to believe Pyongyang’s agitprop department. The influence of Chosen Soren has also waned considerably and the once mighty organization is nearly bankrupt and has hardly more than 40,000 members.

The timing could not have been worse, since returnees lost access to funds at the time of economic disintegration and famine in the North. The remittances often helped them to muddle through, but their affluence is now a thing of the past. Nowadays, most of the returnees (or rather their children and grandchildren, since few of the first generation members are still around) live lives which are indistinguishable from those of common North Koreans. While the authorities look upon them with some residual suspicion, for all intents and purposes this unique group has ceased to exist as a separate entity within North Korean society.

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