Thu, Jun 07, 2018 - Page 5 News List

N Korean loyalists hope for peace

Reuters, TOKYO

Ethnic Koreans in Japan loyal to Pyongyang hope next week’s historic US-North Korea summit will help bring reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and clarify their own murky legal status.

Their optimism has built following April’s upbeat summit of the leaders of North and South Korea and ahead of the meeting on Tuesday next week between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

“I thought reunification was something in the distant future, especially with all the sanctions [on the North], but it now feels so much closer,” said 17-year-old Paeng Yu-na, who attends one of about 60 schools across Japan affiliated with the North.

Along with her classmates, Paeng wears traditional Korean dress, although not beyond school walls to avoid attacks from right-wing nationalists.

Paeng is one of the zainichi minority, Japan’s largest such ethnic group, descended from Koreans who moved or were brought to the country during its colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Over the years, many ethnic Koreans have opted for Japanese citizenship, while others have taken South Korean nationality, totaling about 450,000.

However, a smaller community of about 30,000 have remained loyal to Pyongyang, stuck in a legal gray zone with permanent residency, but no legal nationality, as the countries lack diplomatic ties.

Born and raised in Japan, most differ little from their Japanese counterparts on the surface, speaking the language fluently and often marrying Japanese.

However, many of them have faced discrimination, with the ebb and flow of international politics shadowing their lives.

Job opportunities for pro-Pyongyang Koreans were long limited to firms run by members of their community, including nightclubs, barbecue restaurants and pachinko pinball parlors.

About 90,000 even opted to leave for North Korea between 1959 and 1984, lured by the slogan “Let’s go back to the fatherland!”

Those numbers plunged in the 1980s as tales of the North’s poverty spread.

Others supported the North with steady cash remittances and by carrying goods on a ferry that made occasional trips between the two nations until tightening sanctions banned its port calls.

Each new round of North Korean nuclear tests brought threats and abuse. Students like Paeng, once a not unfamiliar sight on Tokyo streets in their long, traditional uniforms, became particular targets.

Hong Ryong-su, 49, a third-generation zainichi, hopes the summit will yield not only a treaty ending the 1950s Korean War, which culminated in a truce that left both sides technically at war, but also improve conditions for the community.

“Living in Japan, we see a new path opening that will also normalize relations between North Korea and Japan,” Hong said at his home in an industrial suburb of Tokyo.

“We can’t think of that starting without the first [summit] happening, so we’ll be watching developments with bated breath,” Hong said, adding that he is standing ready to toast any successful outcome.

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