YOKOHAMA – As the world rushed to condemn North Korea for its nuclear test, the political shock waves rippled into the daily lives of ethnic Korean children living in Japan.
Amid the clamor for an effective way to punish a Pyongyang leadership that has proved immune to years of diplomatic pressure, youngsters who have never lived under the regime are bearing the brunt of Japanese anger.
The schools many of these children attend are having their funding withdrawn by the government, leaving students and parents wondering why they are being punished for something they can’t control.
“Every time something happens in our fatherland of Korea, small Korean children get harassed verbally and physically by those who watch the news,” said Kim Su Hong, a 17-year-old student at a school in Yokohama. “The daily reality of discrimination that we face really hurts.”
There are around 500,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan, mostly descendants of migrants and forced workers from Japan’s sometimes brutal 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Many are effectively stateless, having forfeited their Japanese nationality with Japan’s 1945 defeat. They remain without the vote in their host country.
When Korea was divided in 1953, they were forced to choose between allegiance to the U.S.-allied Seoul or to Beijing-backed Pyongyang.
Many felt the new government in the South had abandoned Koreans in Japan and gravitated toward institutions generously funded by Kim Il Sung’s North, which lavished money on the community for the establishment and running of dozens of schools.
Since 1957, a total of ¥48 billion has been channeled from the communist state, supporting some 70 ethnic Korean schools throughout Japan, according to an official of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), the North’s de facto embassy.
The schools proudly display portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in their classrooms, which many parents and teachers say represents their gratefulness for the leaders’ support.
Until recently, these schools — to which Japanese people are free to send their children — received the same local government support as any other foreign school in Japan.
But patience was tested after Pyongyang fired a rocket over Okinawa last year, in what it said was a satellite launch, but the U.S. and its allies said was a poorly disguised ballistic missile test.
Then, after the Feb. 12 underground nuclear explosion, the Kanagawa Prefectural Government decided it would halt its ¥60 million annual subsidy to the five schools in the prefecture.
Gov. Yuji Kuroiwa announced that after 35 years of helping to prop up the schools, he could no longer justify the use of taxpayer money.
“North Korea fired its missile and went ahead with a nuclear test. They are such provocative actions against the wishes of the international community,” he said at a news conference. “I have no intention of continuing to defend Korean schools anymore.”
The decision was a major blow to the schools, which campaigned long and hard for the right to receive the prefectural cash.
However, sympathy among Japanese for ethnic Koreans is in short supply.
In 2002, Pyongyang admitted what Japan had long suspected — that North Korean agents kidnapped Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train their spies in the Japanese language and culture.
Leader Kim Jong Il later allowed five of them and their families to return to Japan, but many in the country believe Kim did not come clean and that other abductees remain unaccounted for. Pyongyang’s position is that none remain alive.
Chang Mal Ryo, a teacher at the Yokohama Korean school, said the schools were built by the generations who came from the Korean Peninsula before it was divided along the 38th parallel and should be free from the effects of geopolitics.
She said the withdrawal of Japanese funding will do nothing to help the ethnic Koreans wean themselves off North Korean support.
“I once thought maybe the schools could become independent (from Pyongyang) — but not now,” she said. “Not until Japan becomes completely free of discrimination against Koreans.”
And beyond all the politicking, Han Bok Myong, a mother of three students at the school, says it is the children who are suffering.
“We all know, and children all know, that abductions and nuclear tests should never occur,” she said. “But these issues should never be the reason to take away the children’s right to an education.”
The education ministry on Feb. 20 revised an ordinance to exclude so-called Korean high schools or pro-North Korea high schools from the government’s tuition-waiver program. This change will cause various problems.
First of all, the revision violates the principle of an education program designed to ensure that all high school students in Japan receive an education regardless of the financial condition of their families. Excluding children attending Korean high schools also violates the principle of equality under the law as stipulated by Article 14 of the Constitution.
The government will have difficulty justifying the decision as not discriminatory to students of Korean high schools because the tuition-waiver program covers so-called international schools and schools with close ties to China and South Korea as well.
The decision could also fan prejudice and intolerance in Japanese society toward people who have different views, especially with regard to historical issues.
Education minister Mr. Hakubun Shimomura said on Dec. 28 that the government would not be able to get the public to support a tuition-waiver program that includes pro-North Korea schools, because they have close ties with the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), which acts as North Korea’s de facto diplomatic mission in Tokyo, and because there has been no progress toward resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.
The Democratic Party of Japan government introduced the tuition-free program from fiscal 2010. There are 12 Korean high schools in Japan with about 1,800 students, including both South Korean and Japanese nationals, but two of the schools are virtually closed. Most national and private universities regard graduates of these high schools as having the same qualification as graduates of Japanese high schools and allow them to take their entrance exams.
The DPJ government chose not to act on the tuition waiver for Korean high schools while it was in power. The education ministry’s move last week reflects Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tough stance against North Korea’s rocket launches and nuclear-weapons tests as well as the abduction issue.
Even if pro-North Korea high schools were covered by the tuition-waiver program, the schools themselves would not be financially supported by the Japanese government. The beneficiaries are individual children who have to pay tuition. The ministry’s decision targets them.
Children attending Korean high schools have had nothing to do with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or the abduction of Japanese nationals. Excluding them will not help to resolve these problems. The right of foreign residents of Japan to study their own languages and history of their countries at schools they have established also should be upheld. That said, it would be helpful if Korean schools made greater efforts to make themselves transparent through class visits and other activities.
The government should heed the words of Mr. Shigeru Yokota, the father of Ms. Megumi Yokota, who was abducted in 1978 by a North Korean agent. Tokyo Shimbun quoted him as saying: “It is unreasonable to discriminate against second- and third-generation Koreans living legally in Japan. I would like Korean schools to sufficiently teach the abduction issue. But I think it is unreasonable to make the children take responsibility (for the abductions).”
The government should also consider what the international community will say about the decision. Criticism of Japan will likely be strong