Inside North Korea’s bubble in Japan


It’s graduation day at a children’s
school in Tokyo. From the metro station it’s just ten
blocks to their school, but these children aren’t totally safe. Old men
from their community have to stand at every corner to make sure that these
kids aren’t harassed or bullied. It’s happened before. In fact, there’s been a
lot of rallies in Tokyo lately: protesting these kids and their school. This is because, even though these kids and their parents were born in Japan,
they’re not Japanese. This is North Korea’s bubble in Japan. It’s a community of about 150,000 Koreans, holdovers from the 1940’s when
Japan’s military forcibly brought over their relatives. They run a network of
schools, where they teach their kids about Korean history, teach them Korean
language. They teach them the ideology of the great leader Kim Il-Sung. The guards are here this morning because three days ago, North Korea tested a bunch of
missiles that landed right off Japan’s shores. Before the students can leave, they have
to change out of the traditional Korean clothing. But this community isn’t giving in to the pressure. Their schools are the place
where they can protect their identity and quietly revere their great leader
and the homeland that he founded. A place none of them have ever lived. This North Korean bubble is a nation within a nation, whose borders are made out of
culture, language, history, and ideology. And it shows how borders exist as much
in our minds as they do on maps. In 1910 the Korean Peninsula was annexed by
Japan’s expanding empire. During its rule the empire brought tens of thousands of
Koreans to Japan, mainly to work and to serve in their army. Or in the case of
Korean women, to serve as sex slaves in brothels for Japanese soldiers. Japan’s empire grew until 1945 when World War II, brought its sudden defeat and the loss of
much of its empire, including Korea. The Koreans who were in Japan were free, but
they found themselves in a country that didn’t recognize them as citizens. The
United States and the Soviet Union quickly filled the power vacuum of this
newly liberated Korean Peninsula and two new countries were formed: the U.S.
backing the new South Korea, and the Soviet Union backing the North,
installing a rising leader, Kim Il-Sung who a few years later invaded the
U.S.-backed South, starting the Korean War. Most of the Koreans in Japan went back
to Korea, but about 600,000 decided to stay in Japan. The Korean War changed everything, creating a bitter division between these
two new Koreas. So the Koreans in Japan could no longer just be Korean. They
suddenly had to choose which Korea they affiliated with. Almost all of them had
originally been from what was now South Korea, but this new North Korea began
paying special attention to the Koreans in Japan, sending the money and helping them
build schools and businesses. Effectively, helping them build a cultural border, to
help protect their identity and language against the Japanese society that sought
to change or destroy it. This school where the graduation is
taking place, was built with funding from Kim Il-Sung in those early days, after
the war. For these stateless Koreans in Japan, this support from a faraway
government built trust and loyalty to a regime that they had never actually
lived under. The North Korean backed organization in Japan
called themselves the Chongryon and over the following decades they built a
network of schools, banks, and gambling parlors. They became rich, and started
sending millions of dollars back to North Korea to support the regime. In
their heyday the Chongryon was worth around $25 billion dollars. But something happened that would mark the beginning of the end for this North
Korean business empire in Japan. In the late 70’s North Korea started sending
spies disguised as fishermen to Japanese beaches, to start kidnapping Japanese
citizens. They brought them back to North Korea so that they could use them for
their language and cultural understanding of Japan, so they could help
train their spies. The victims, including a 13 year old girl who allegedly died in
captivity, gripped the nation’s attention for years, their stories making their way into pop culture, their faces known to every
citizen. Around the same time, North Korea began developing its long-range missile
program, a program that would eventually lead North Korea to having nuclear
weapon delivery capabilities. Both the nuclear and abduction issues came to a
head in the early 2000’s, when North Korea withdrew from the nuclear
non-proliferation treaty, a treaty that prevents countries from building more
nuclear weapons. The regime also officially admitted that they were
behind some of the kidnappings of Japanese citizens. This set off a wave of
violent attacks and hate speech against North Koreans living in Japan. The Japanese government demanded that
the Chongryon repay its outstanding debts. When the organization couldn’t do this,
they were forced to declare bankruptcy. Many of their buildings, including their
headquarters, were seized. The organization was left in financial ruin,
with only its network of a few dozen schools standing. These schools became
the next target for Japanese animosity towards North Korea. Korean students suddenly found
themselves in the middle of this heated international conflict. This graph shows the amount of state funding for Korean schools by Japanese prefectures over time. 2006 was the year that North Korea tested a
nuclear weapon. And you can see the immediate drop-off of funding every year
thereafter. Prefectures providing tuition subsidies for Korean schools
went from 28 in 2006, down to 12 today. Education officials specifically cite
the abduction issue as well as the general “situation” in North Korea, as
their motive for defunding the schools. Japan’s Ministry of Education declined my request for an interview on this, but I did talk to an
anti-Korean activist who defended these actions by putting the issue into terms
that I, as an American, could understand. As I visited these schools and talked
with these people who live in a country that is openly hostile towards them,
I found myself torn. This organization pledges allegiance to a regime that has
committed some of the most horrific atrocities that our modern world knows. Each and every conceivable
human right is violated. There are 80,000 to 100,000 people who are languishing in political prison camps. Yet at the same time, they are also victims of severe
structural discrimination. The U.N. and other international bodies have
repeatedly condemned the Japanese structural discrimination against
Koreans. The North Korean community often cites this as validation for their
plight, but the U.N. has also called North Korea’s human rights violations so grave
that they have “no parallel in the contemporary world”. When you ask them how
they reconcile this contradiction, the response is always some version of: “any
country has human rights issues.” At first I found this astounding, that there could be such a willful ignorance
to the atrocities of the North Korean regime, but the more embedded I got into
this North Korean community in Japan, the more I realized that, to this
marginalized community, North Korea represents more of a refuge of safety
for their identity – something they crave while they’re living in a country that
is actively working to diminish their heritage and culture. While younger generations are more likely to assimilate into Japanese society, the Chongryon have done an exceptional job at cultivating the strong Korean
identity despite all the pressure and hardship. In their last year of high
school the students have an opportunity to go visit North Korea. Seeing and hearing the accounts of this highly choreographed visit to Pyongyang, is
all you need to understand the relationship that this disenfranchised
community has towards its adopted homeland. I visited the North Korean university where
they’ve curated a museum dedicated to everything Korean. Every rock, tree,
species of fish, plant, animal, root, that has ever existed on the Korean Peninsula
is found in this museum, which was built with support from the North Korean
government. I had never seen such a meticulously comprehensive collection to
enshrine a place in a history. This place does not exist for visitors. It’s much
more of a statement that, in spite of intense pressure and hostility, Korean
culture endures in Japan. North Korea isn’t their home country in the way that you
would think. They weren’t born there, they’ve never lived there, but they see
it as their home country because the country that they were born in actively
works to make their lives harder. Like in many parts of the world,
right-wing nationalism is surging in Japan. Anti-Korean rallies are on the
rise, according to an investigation by Japanese law enforcement. Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe is a fierce nationalist and he’s caught up in a scandal right now
for having given secret donations to an ultra-nationalist kindergarten with anti-Korean views. Japanese nationalism leads to discrimination against Koreans.
This causes the Koreans to resist Japan as their home country, looking to a
country they’ve never lived in for support and protection of their identity. Affiliating with this universally reviled regime, that routinely vows to
destroy Japan creates more resentment from the Japanese population and
politicians, leading to more discrimination which leads to again
deeper commitment to North Korea as a protector. And in my mind there’s no
doubt that the cycle will continue. While I was in Japan making this video, I
also spent a lot of time with these ultra right-wing groups who are anti-Korean and I didn’t go into that much in this video, but I made an entire separate
video about the rise of right-wing politics in Japan and kind of the anti-Korean sentiment and where that comes from, from like a historical perspective. And of course: big THANK YOU to lululemon who is a sponsor of Borders, they sent me
these ABC pants a while back that I’ve been wearing. They are sturdy, and
flexible and you can wear them when you’re hiking or when you’re at home. So
thank you lululemon, but more importantly thank you for supporting Borders and
making this project possible. I’m gonna leave a link here for the lululemon shop
for men online, and you can check out your own pair of ABC pants. Alright, we’re three episodes into Borders, we have three to go. Get ready
for next Tuesday when I publish the fourth. And wish me luck in the meantime
I’ve got a lot of editing to do.

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