Kim Jong Un Gets Thumbs-Up from North Koreans in Japan

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Kim Jong Un, center, inspecting the headquarters of the No. 790 unit of the North Korean navy in this undated picture released by the North's Korea Central News Agency on Feb. 8, 2011

When Kim Jong Un was declared heir apparent of North Korea in December, Choe Kwan Ik was probably one of the few people in Tokyo who knew who the kid was. As Bill Powell writes in this week’s story “Meet Kim Jong Un,” (available here for subscribers) what we don’t know about the 29-year-old leader of the world’s most unpredictable state is a lot. And though Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons are only 800 miles away from Japan, most Tokyoites hear as little about life in the Hermit Kingdom as anyone else. A trickle of information has flowed in from the books written by Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef, but otherwise Japan, like the rest of world, must rely on the scraps of propaganda from North Korea’s official news agency, like today’s mournful tribute to the recently deceased leader on his 70th birthday.

As managing editor of the Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo newspaper printed in Korean and Japanese, knowing what’s happening in North Korea comes with Choe’s job, and even he admitted he didn’t know much. “We didn’t have detailed information about [Kim Jong Un] before Kim Jong Il’s death,” Choe recalled one day last month in Tokyo. But, he said, two of his reporters happened to be in Pyongyang when Kim died, and both shook hands with the sub-30 Supreme Leader. “They were unanimous in saying he looked warm, openhearted and very casual,” Choe said. “He is very young, but he is very smart. He appeared to them to be a good leader.”

That ringing endorsement also comes with the job: the Choson Sinbo is the organ paper of Chongryon, or the General Association for Korean Residents in Japan, a community organization for Koreans in Japan aligned with the North. Chongryon also serves as the de facto embassy for North Korea in Japan, as the two countries don’t have official ties. After Kim Jong Il’s death, for instance, Tokyo declared that high-level Chongryon members who left to attend the state funeral would be refused re-entry to Japan. Japan refuses to normalize relations until the North takes full responsibility for the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s. North Korea has admitted and accounted for the deaths or repatriation of 13 Japanese citizens, but Japan insists there are more who are unaccounted for.

After Chinese nationals, Koreans comprise the largest group of permanent foreign residents in Japan at about 800,000. Though many have lived there for three generations, the majority of Koreans in Japan do not have Japanese citizenship, and many keep ties with either South Korea or North Korea via two organizations, Mindan and Chongryon, respectively. Not surprisingly, Mindan is much larger. For the minority who identify with Chongryon, it’s a choice that is more about ideology than geography, since the vast majority of Koreans in Japan came from the southern part of the Korean peninsula. “We like North Korea for its pride, legitimacy and juche,” said Choe. He described juche, the political philosophy of self-reliance conceived by Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, as meaning “you are the master of your own fate.”

Choe, whose family is also from the South, estimates about 100,000 Koreans have moved to North Korea from Japan since the end of the Korean War. “They didn’t like [Japanese] society,” he said, which he described as “homogeneous” and harboring deep prejudices against minorities and foreigners. Indeed, what has won Choe and many others over is the money that Pyongyang has been sending for decades to help educate Koreans living in Japan. That money, Choe said, has helped “take back the identity and pride in being Korean … We have been able to live here in a foreign land proudly, despite discrimination. That is why we owe so much to North Korea.”

Chongryon currently runs 99 schools throughout Japan, including three kindergartens. Though the schools sponsor trips and exchanges for students in Pyongyang, one former student says they are not preoccupied with instilling North Korea’s worldview, as many assume. The fact that they are considered incubators for Pyongyang supporters is part of the pervasive feeling of ill will in Japan toward North Korea, she says. “The strong anti–North Korean sentiment in the Japanese press has made it harder for Japanese citizens to think more broadly about the North Korean people,” says the now middle-aged former student, who did not want to be named. “They always need an enemy.”

For now, nobody — not the Japanese press, not the government nor anyone else — is sure what category Kim Jong Un fits into. A U.S. delegation is scheduled to have bilateral talks with North Korea in Beijing next weekend for the first time since the 29-year-old took his father’s place at the top of the North Korean food chain. Whether or not this means that the six-party talks, aimed at getting Pyongyang to put the brakes on its nuclear ambitions, will resume is unclear. The only thing that’s for certain, it seems, is that everyone involved is treading lightly. “North Korea will have a difficult time to make this power transition,” Gi-Wook Shin, the director of the California-based Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said in an interview in December. “At the same time [this year], there will be a power transition in China and Washington. There might be a new Prime Minister in Japan. There is a lot of uncertainty in these major countries … It doesn’t mean a crisis, but managing this period successfully will be very, very important.”

As thousands gathered Thursday on the streets of Pyongyang to mark the late Kim Jong Il’s birthday, high-ranking officials used the opportunity to pledge their support to the unquestioned authority of his young son. “Kim Jong Un is very popular among the citizens,” said Choe. He admitted that some Chongryon members, particularly the younger ones, “didn’t like the idea of secession of power by blood.” But in the end, the young leader has their support too. It was, after all, the will of the Dear Leader that put him there in the first place, said Choe. “Kim Jong Il is an exception, because he’s a genius. Everybody recognizes that.”

MAGAZINE: Meet Kim Jong Un (available for subscribers)

Mahr is a correspondent at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kristamahr. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.