Despite its reduced membership size and financial capacity compared to its prime, Chongryon remains relevant to bilateral political and diplomatic relations. This is especially the case given the heightened possibility of communication between Japan and North Korea after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent overtures towards meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unconditionally.
Chongryon’s continued importance in the bilateral relationship depends on whether it can maintain the confidence of the North Korean government to represent it in Japan and if other organisations could substitute the Chongryon’s roles and functions.
Chongryon was established in 1955 with the support of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party. It has run dozens of schools and a university in Japan that educates ethnic Koreans on North Korean culture and language, practically functions as a propaganda platform for the North Korean government, which has funded these Chosen schools since 1957. Students were not allowed to benefit from various student-related privileges and activities until the 1990s. These schools are ineligible for tuition subsidies from the Japanese government, having been disqualified for their ties to North Korea.
Chongryon also ran various business and criminal enterprises which reportedly produced over US$1billion in annual revenue, most of which was remitted to North Korea.
But Chongryon’s ability to support the Workers’ Party has been severely impaired, with its businesses suffering from the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1990s and the Japanese government’s surveillance and sanctions against North Korea. North Korea-leaning Koreans are becoming more open to Japanese society and South Korea-leaning ethnic Koreans in Japan. Many Chongryon members may remain in the organisation to maintain personal relationships rather than shared principles or ideology.
Chongryon and the Japanese elite have had a mutually beneficial relationship. From 1959 to the 1980s, Chongryon collaborated with the Japanese government in repatriating up to 90,000 Koreans to North Korea, removing what the Japanese elites perceived as ‘leftist troublemakers’. It also supported the political career of prominent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers in the 1970s and 1980s.
Chongryon has held discussions and lectures on the diplomatic relationship between North Korea and Japan with various mainstream Japanese political parties. In May 2005, prime minister Junichiro Koizumi commemorated the 50th anniversary of Chongryon in his capacity as president of the LDP. This demonstrates Chongryon’s role in promoting engagement with the Japanese public and elite and in possibly gathering intelligence.
Japanese attitudes towards North Korea deteriorated after the 2002 Japan–North Korea summit when North Korea confirmed the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, which had been long denied by the government and its sympathisers — including Chongryon. North Korea’s return of the surviving victims is a persisting political issue in Japan. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is the latest leader who has vowed to ensure the return of all abductees.
The major symbol of Chongryon’s decline was the forced auction of its headquarters in central Tokyo. The Japanese government started the bidding for the building in March 2013 to recover some of the 62.7 billion yen owed by the Chongryon for a bailout in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But the building remains in Chongryon’s control even after its sale.
Chongryon membership has also declined. The Japanese Ministry of Justice announced that as of December 2018, there were 29,559 Chosen-seki, which is a legal status assigned to ethnic Koreans in Japan who are neither Japanese nor South Korean in nationality. Most Chosen-seki are known to be Chongryon members. According to the Ministry of Justice, this was an 11.5 per cent decrease over three years. This suggests that many Chosen-seki have chosen to acquire either a Japanese or South Korean citizenship.
North Korea, after firing a ballistic missile over Japan in October 2022, warned the Japanese government against further persecution of pro-regime Koreans in Japan, regarding it as ‘a challenge to its dignity and sovereignty’. North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is rumoured to have shown interest in Chongryon since coming to power. He proclaimed that ‘it is the eternal policy of our Republic to attach importance to Chongryon and overseas compatriots’ in his letter commemorating Chongryon’s 25th Congress.
The Japanese government also seems to recognise Chongryon’s value, as it expressed desire to host a summit with North Korea via Chongryon in 2017.
Chongryon has weathered economic collapse, bilateral crises, social discrimination and political pressure in its history. But as long as it retains North Korea’s confidence and remains the only regular and stable conduit for bilateral discourse, it will remain relevant to the political relationship between Japan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Given its enduring position as North Korea’s delegate in Japan, greater attention should be paid to the activities of Chongryon as diplomatic signals and the specific roles that it would oversee if a Japan–North Korea summit is to be held.
Soyoung Kim is a PhD candidate at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.