When he was younger, Lee Chek says, he wanted to be a soldier for Kim Jong Il, and "fight Japan." He'd have been fighting from behind enemy lines, of course, because the ethnic-Korean Lee was born and raised in Japan, where has always lived. The 35-year-old is a third-generation zainichi, one of 600,000 ethnic Koreans who dwell in Japan. And, like many zainichi, he grew up identifying with the North Korean regime. Lee attended Korean-language schools run by Chongyron, the fiercely pro-Pyongyang Korean residents association in Japan, where he was taught that North Korea was a socialist paradise.
Then, in the early 1990s, he actually visited Pyongyang, first as a student and then as an official for Chongyron. "It was 180 degrees different from what I was taught in schools," Lee remembers. "They didn't teach how miserable life was there."
Though he still retains affection for North Korea, Lee saw Chongyron as fatally beholden to Kim Jong Il, and in 2001 he broke with the organization, becoming a freelance journalist. (Lee Chek is a pen name he uses to protect relatives still living in North Korea from retribution.) Chongyron which functions as North Korea's de-facto diplomatic voice in Japan took away his North Korean passport, and he hasn't been back to Pyongyang. Permitted to take Korean or Japanese nationality, last year Lee took South Korean citizenship in order to travel abroad.
For decades after World War II and the division of the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang commanded the affection of a large proportion of the Koreans living in Japan, with an obedient and well-funded Chongyron as its organizer. That meant vital cash for the regime's leaders some Japanese experts believe that Chongyron has channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to Pyongyang from semi-mandatory contributions by the zainichi community. But in recent years, the "Dear Leader" has lost the love of Koreans in Japan, thanks to a stream of ugly revelations about the Pyongyang regime, plus the inevitable influence of assimilation.
And the turn away from Kim has left Chongyron, long flush with cash, now owing over $500 million; its headquarters in one of Tokyo's priciest neighborhoods was seized last month by government creditors. "I think there are a lot of people who feel less allegiance or loyalty to North Korea now," admits one Chongyron associate, who prefers to remain anonymous. "And people are distancing themselves from Chongyron because the organization cannot address the needs of the Korean community."
Despite their longtime support for the North, most zainichi hail from the southern half of Korea, before they moved (or were forcibly relocated) to work in Japan between 1910 and 1945, when Korea had been a Japanese colony. In their new home, the Koreans were an oppressed minority; Kim Kyoo Il, a 69-year-old zainichi activist, remembers that during the war years, "Japanese were first-class citizens, and the [Koreans] were considered second-rate people."
In that harsh environment, the militant Chongyron organization founded in 1955 proved an effective answer to the need of the zainichi to band together to protect themselves and their identity. Kim offers an example from his own life: As a Korean college graduate in 1961, no Japanese company would hire him, so he went to work for Chongyron.
Chongyron was dedicated to preserving Korean identity in Japan, running Korean-language schools and cultural organizations, and its strong sense of national pride prompted its support for Pyongyang; in the organization's heyday, South Korea was viewed among zainichi as little more than an American poodle. But as Pyongyang took a firmer hand in the running of Chongyron, it became less concerned with improving the lot of its members than with furthering North Korea's agenda, soliciting money from the zainichi to enrich Kim Jong Il, and before him, his father, Kim Il Sung.
Worse, still, for the organization's reputation, Chongyron encouraged tens of thousands of zainichi families to repatriate to North Korea in the 1960s, where they faced unimaginable hardship and oppression. "Chongyron became a tool of Kim Il Sung," says Kim Kyoo Il, who left the organization in 1965. "All he did was use the zainichi as human resources for the North Korean regime." (Chongyron did not respond to requests for comment.) Things became worse for the organization in the 1990s when undeniable proof of human rights atrocities in the North began to reach Japan's zainichi. The knockout blow came when Pyongyang admitted, in 2002, that it had kidnapped a number of Japanese citizens for espionage purposes since the 1970s Chongyron had always dismissed allegations about the kidnappings as lies. With the Japanese public enraged even more so after last October's nuclear test few zainichi wanted to be associated with Pyongyang, or with Chongyron.
Third- and fourth-generation zainichi, meanwhile, have been far more inclined than their parents had been to intermarry or take Japanese citizenship, as official discrimination against them began to ease. "They believe they can succeed in Japanese society," says Kim Kyoo Il. "Their understanding is that they'll live here permanently." Given an aging, shrinking Japan's need for more immigrants and the country's recent mania for things Korean that's a safe assumption.
As zainichi become more integrated into Japanese life, Chongyron faces extinction. A proud zainichi such as high-tech entrepreneur Masayoshi Son, one of the richest men in Japan, is emblematic of a new generation that no longer need the protection of an ethnic association, much less one tied to a dictator. The gradual rapprochement between North and South Korea has also rendered Chongyron superfluous. "When the South and the North come together over there, you don't have to pick one or the other over here," says Lee.
Still, fond feelings for North Korea haven't entirely disappeared among many zainichi, even if they've gotten somewhat complicated. The Chongyron associate says that when soccer's World Cup rolls around, he still cheers for North Korea. "But I realized when I watched a match that I know everyone on the Japan side, but no one for North Korea," he says. "Living in Japan but supporting North Korea is just very strange."