Chongryon Feels the Pinch

The 55th anniversary of the Chongryon (General Association of North Korean Residents in Japan) is in 2010. Throughout its history, Chongryon has acted as the overseas stronghold of Pyongyang’s anti-South Korea strategy, and has supported North Korea in other ways both official and behind the scenes.

A majority of the Korean residents in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to the organization. At the time, there were close to 500,000 members and 260 chapters, including 48 provincial groupings in addition to the Chongryon headquarters itself. The number of provincial chapters eventually grew to more than 1,300; the Chongryon grew to be an enormous organization. Furthermore, due to the fact that businessmen within it were engaged in various activities, most notably operating Pachinko gaming machines, the group was able to accumulate significant wealth.

But, rather than protecting the rights of Korean residents in Japan, it always devoted itself mostly to promoting North Korea’s anti-South Korea strategy, and, once it started engaging in propaganda for the regime of Kim Il Sung and then Kim Jong Il, members began to drift away one by one. Above all, a large number of members deserted the organization when North Korea’s support for terrorism revealed the true colors of the regime.

More recently, the organization has come under threat due to North Korea’s nuclear tests and the unresolved issue of abductees from Japan’s west coast in the 1970s. Threats from the Japanese government, trade sanctions against the North, the disregard for the organization shown by Korean residents in Japan and deteriorating Japanese domestic opinion have hit it hard from all sides.

In advance of its anniversary, The Daily NK has assessed the activities of the Chongryon, and the reasons behind its decline.

◆ The History of Chongryon

Following the founding of the Chongryon back in 1955, the percentage of the Korean residents in Japan who belonged to the organization continued to grow rapidly and, by the 1960s, 500,000 of the 600,000 Koreans in the country were members. However, the percentage has sharply decreased since then, and now it is less than 10 percent. Moreover, there are many residents who are technically registered as members of the Chongryon but are inactive; the active membership is actually even smaller.

The Japanese government again gathered official statistics on the membership of both the Chongryon and Korean Residents Union in Japan (the South Korea-affiliated equivalent, also known as Mindan) in 1994. At the time, according to the Public Security Intelligence Agency, the total number of Korean residents in Japan totaled 688,000, with those considering themselves to be Mindan numbering 369,000 (54 percent) and Chongryon 247,000 (36 percent). Of those, the numbers who were active in Chongryon at the time amounted to just 56,000 (8 percent). No similar figure is available for Mindan due to its different membership structure. 63,000 (9 percent) claimed no affiliation at all.

The survey by the Public Security Intelligence Agency based its result (56,000) on the numbers who were regularly investing in the organization. However, this may be a misleading figure, because among people who formerly belonged to the Chongryon but subsequently withdrew, approximately half reported that they had been forced to donate to the organization.

Additionally, a substantial number of the blood relatives of persons within the organization were fooled into returning to the North during the infamous “homecoming project” of the late 50s and 60s, and some of their relatives will inevitably have chosen to stay in the organization to avoid risking further harm.

Ultimately, from the 1950s until the present day, the number of Korean residents in Japan belonging to the Chongryon has continually decreased, reaching today’s 40,000~50,000.

Park Doo Jin, a former professor at Chosun University (which is affiliated with the Chongryon) told The Daily NK in a phone conversation, “A majority of the brethren in the Chongryon left the organization when their lives grew difficult. They had devoted themselves to it, but it made little difference to their lives, so many left the organization; the phenomenon continues to this day.”

Further, he added, “In particular, once the reality of the Kim Jong Il regime was revealed, many people started to avoid the Chongryun, and when it became public knowledge that the abduction of Japanese citizens was an act authorized by Kim Jong Il himself, this dislike became even more acute.”

(to be continued)