The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Korean schools in Japan? Geopolitics may shutter them.

Portraits of North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hang in the principal’s office at the Saitama Korean Elementary and Middle School in Japan. (Michelle Ye Hee Lee/The Washington Post)

OSAKA, Japan — The teacher wore the traditional Korean dress known as a hanbok. Next to the chalkboard in her classroom hung a painting of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding leader. And on the computer screen as she drilled her Japan-born students: Korean vocabulary.

“How do you pronounce this?” she asked in Korean, pointing to the word for family.

“Sik-gu,” the children shouted.

At this elementary school in Osaka, fourth- and fifth-generation children of Koreans who arrived in Japan during its 1910-1945 occupation of their country have a rare outlet to learn about their identity as “Zainichi Joseon,” a long-marginalized ethnic minority with a stateless status as neither Japanese nor Korean.

Many in their community embrace North Korea, which funded dozens of such schools in the early years of the Cold War to help citizens who moved to Japan as laborers. Joseon is the name of the final kingdom of Korea, and the current campuses are affiliated with an ethnic organization that maintains ties to the home country. They do not identify with either the North or the South, however, yearning instead for a unified peninsula.

The schools’ historical links to North Korea have long made them a target of harassment, including protesters showing up to yell that the students are “children of spies.” Attacks have intensified this year with North Korea’s unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests.

When one of those missiles flew over Japan in October, multiple schools reported threatening phone calls, arson attacks and more. “How dare you ask for free education when your country is launching missiles at Japan?” a man riding a Tokyo train yelled at a student he believed was attending a Joseon school, according to news reports.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has spoken out against such intimidation. But it has persisted, prompting North Korean state media to call Japan a “ferocious, shameless and morally vulgar state” that “attempts to make innocent children an object of entirely unjust discrimination and persecution.”

Yet for the remaining 63 Joseon schools, the biggest immediate challenge is financial. Many are shuttering because of a lack of support from both Pyongyang and Tokyo — part of the governments’ fraught relations.

Johoku Elementary is one of three in the Osaka prefecture that will cease operations next year. Established in 1959 and one of the oldest Joseon schools in Japan, it is down to just 38 students. The families say its closure will mean the loss of a special place that fosters their sense of belonging and identity in a country that has long shunned them.

The building’s hallways are lined with posters and drawings expressing school pride. The music room is filled with traditional Korean instruments and child-sized hanbok robes for dance performances. It also has rows of CDs with songs children learn to play and sing — including such North Korean propaganda songs as “Generalissimo Kim Il Sung Is With Us” and “Songs of Loyalty.”

“There were obviously Japanese schools that were much closer to home,” said Kim Kiyon, a third-generation Zainichi whose youngest child attends Johoku. “But being educated in Joseon schools myself, I think it was just ingrained in me that when I have kids I would also send them to Joseon school.”

Nearly all Zainichi Koreans have roots in what is now South Korea. After colonization ended, they lost their rights as Japanese nationals. There was only one Korea then, and so they registered as “Joseon,” meaning they were from the Korean Peninsula. Japan refused them citizenship. (Today, they can seek it through naturalization.)

North Korea made overtures to the community for two decades after the peninsula’s division in 1953. Kim Il Sung offered a repatriation program and funding to create schools, which fostered the community’s affinity toward him and the North. For many, Kim’s experience in the anti-Japanese guerrilla fights legitimized him as a national leader — unlike Syngman Rhee, the U.S.-backed South Korean president at the time.

But as South Korea’s economy began to outpace the North’s, more Zainichi Koreans switched allegiances. About 26,000 now identify as Joseon while about 400,000 identify with South Korea.

North Korean influences remain strong in the Joseon schools, which are open to anyone with roots on the Korean Peninsula. Their language incorporates North Korean vocabulary, spoken with a Japanese twang. Students read books sent from North Korea about music and folklore and learn about the history and legacy of the Kim family — though they are not taught about the North’s more controversial aspects, such as human rights violations and rampant poverty.

Oh Youngho, an associate professor at Tottori University in southern Japan, who studies the history of Joseon schools, often thinks of the words incorporated into the gates of a campus in Tokyo. They read, “Joseon school is our hometown.”

“I think that this is a feeling shared by graduates and families,” said Oh, who is a third-generation Zainichi. The schools are “a place that has fostered our identity.”

North of Tokyo, the maps and drawings of Korea that hang in the hallways of Saitama Korean Elementary and Middle School all depict a unified Korea. It feels as if the division never happened — until you get a glimpse of a class project on past North-South summits geared toward peace talks and the agreements the two sides made then.

Today’s reality is that North Korea has retreated more than ever from diplomatic engagement with the South. And there’s little hope for progress in its relations with Japan, particularly given the subject of Japanese nationals who were abducted by Pyongyang during the Cold War. Though Kim Jong Il acknowledged the abductions and apologized in 2002, they have been a key point of contention between the two countries since at least 2006 under then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

A dozen years ago, the Japanese government waived high school tuition fees for Japanese students. But it excluded Joseon schools, blocking the use of taxpayer money until the abduction issue was resolved. The government has demanded that North Korea investigate all abductions and return the victims. The regime said in 2014 that it would do so; nothing further has happened.

Many local governments pulled funding over the same issue. Saitama Korean Elementary and Middle School lost its subsidy in 2011 and has hung on for its 173 students through tuition fees, donations, fundraisers and support from the ethnic organization Chosen Soren.

“Things have become difficult for the zainichi community … as Japan over the years has shifted towards a more right-winged and conservative direction, especially under the Abe administration,” said Kim Pom Jung, who leads fundraising as deputy director of the Korean Scholarship Foundation.

On a recent Saturday, a group of parents in aprons worked in the school’s small kitchen amid a piercing smell of garlic and aged cabbage. Their every-other-month kimchi fundraiser is growing more popular, especially with fans of K-pop band BTS sharing it online. The parents’ November haul was the best one yet, selling a record 3,400 batches for shipment across the country. The profit: $5,000.

It’s not easy for families to send their children to these schools, Oh said, but they are trying to preserve the opportunity for future generations.

The schools “have existed for the past 70 years so that we don’t have to hide the fact or feel ashamed of our identity,” he said. “I hope that we can live in a society where everyone can be proud of their roots, which sadly isn’t the reality right now.”

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