Wednesday, December 1, 2010
By YOREE KOH
TOKYO—The name of the biggest North Korean school in Japan—Tokyo-North Korean Junior-Senior High School—is carved into the two cement columns lining the walkway to the entrance. It's in Japanese on one side and Korean on the other. Traditional North Korean folk music booms over the outdoor loudspeakers and students dribbling soccer balls on the field shout out greetings to passing administrators.
But the relative tranquility here belies a tense standoff between Japan's 140 pro-Pyongyang schools and the Japanese government, following North Korea's artillery barrage on a South Korean island. The Japanese government threatened to cut off support for North Korean schools here, thrusting the pro-Pyongyang ethnic Korean community in Japan under the spotlight.
Japan has the largest network of North Korean schools in the world outside of North Korea itself, due to the nearly 600,000 Koreans who were forcibly taken or moved to Japan during the country's colonial rule. At these schools, classes are taught in Korean and portraits of Kim Jong Il hang from the walls.
The Japanese government is in the final stages of a yearlong debate over whether to extend public subsidies to the country's North Korea-leaning high schools. The policy, one of the cornerstones of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan's campaign platform in 2009, exempts Japanese public senior high school students from tuition, while private educational institutions receive an annual subsidy of as much as 237,600 yen ($2,827) per student. Japanese public and private high school students have been included in the government initiative since it was implemented April 1, but 10 North Korean high schools that had sought assistance were excluded and required to undergo a screening process.
Education Minister Yoshiaki Takaki indicated, after a meeting with Prime Minister Naoto Kan, that the process should be halted in light of North Korea's deadly attack, a shift from comments made earlier in the month when the minister said politics wouldn't influence his final decision. An education-ministry official declined to comment on the matter.
Supporters of the schools say the North Korean attack has nothing to do with the students themselves.
"These students have nothing to do with what could happen on the Korean peninsula at any given time…it is extremely unreasonable to suspend the process of making the North Korean schools free of charge by linking it to the current tension on the Korean peninsula," said Shin Gil-ung, the head of the association of North Korean schools in Japan, at a news conference Thursday. As Mr. Shin spoke to the media, a small group of Japanese nationalists protested outside the building with megaphones and banners, underlining the contentious nature of the schools' presence in Japan.
The debate over schools raises a sensitive relic from Japan's past. There are about 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in Japan, a community largely composed of third- and fourth-generation descendants of Koreans who arrived in Japan during the country's 35-year colonial rule that ended in 1945. Experts estimate the family trees of more than 90% of the residents have roots in the South. But in the post-World War II period when Japan refused to fund schools that taught Korean-related topics, North Korea stepped in. Pyongyang provided the early financial support that built and maintained educational facilities where Korean language, culture and history were taught in the 1950s.
Financial subsidies from North Korea peaked in the 1970s, with as much as 3 billion yen, or $35.7 million, by some estimates. The donations have fallen drastically over the years as the North's economy tanked. The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, or Chongryon, which is considered the de facto North Korean embassy, said the hermit country has contributed 46 billion yen during the past 50 years. About 10,000 students attend the 140 Pyongyang-friendly schools nationwide—that includes kindergarten through senior high school and one university—according to documents provided by Chongryon. The financial and ideological ties with North Korea have caused the association, and by extension the community, to come under fire in the past.
The schools' curriculum today includes history lessons on North Korea as well as modern and world history. Third-year students at the four North Korea-leaning high schools in Tokyo spend as much as three hours a week in North Korean history class and five hours focused on Korean language. Senior year is a particularly exciting one for the students. It's the year the class goes to Pyongyang on a two-week school trip in what is usually the first time many of them have touched North Korean soil.
"It was different from what had been shown on the Japanese media," said Koh Yon-jae, a third-year student. "It was much more developed and everyone was very kind to us. It is a very hospitable country."
He added: "That's not to say that as someone who was born and raised in Japan but identifies himself as North Korean I didn't have complicated feelings."
Mr. Koh, who plans to attend the North Korean university next April, said he and his friends have been discussing the skirmish on the Korean peninsula with hopes it will be resolved soon.
"To be sure, they [North Korea] did attack. But to say that's the whole story, to define a country based on the event is not accurate," Mr. Koh said.