File photo shows then-leaders of the General Association of Korean Residents of Japan, known as Chongryong, a group for ethnic Koreans affiliated with North Korea, clapping their hands before portraits of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (R) and his late father Kim Il Sung during a 2007 rally at a Tokyo hall. Photo: AFP / Yoshikazu Tsuno

At a time when the international community is strenuously trying to denuclearize North Korea, one would be surprised to know that Japan, the main target of North Korea’s nuclear missiles, is cutting Pyongyang considerable slack.

There are many measures Japan could take against North Korea, because it plays host to a North Korean organization of some 70,000 members called the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Japanese abbreviation Chongryon), which functions in place of an embassy in a country with which North Korea has no diplomatic relations.

Actions taken so far are too little, too late. For example, in 2016, Japan subjected five Korean nuclear and missile technology experts living in Japan to a ban on re-entry if they should travel again to North Korea. However, they do not need to travel to that country to teach their dangerous knowledge. Besides, most of them have worked for North Korea for decades and there is no way to take back the technology they provided.

One of the sanctioned five,Dr Pyeon Cheol Ho, assistant professor at Kyoto University Institute for Integrated Radiation and Nuclear Science, is still working there, paid by Japanese taxpayers as an employee of a national university.

Chongryon is Kim Jong Un’s weak spot and it could be a crucial bargaining chip in the effort to denuclearize North Korea and to stop the regime’s crimes against humanity.

On April 20, 1999, the late dictator Kim Jong Il issued a directive: “Chongryon is a precious revolutionary legacy of the Great Leader [founder of the regime Kim Il Sung]. We must defend to the death and preserve Chongryon unconditionally using any means possible.”

In North Korea, directives of Kim Jong Il take precedence over even the constitution.

Although Chongryon these days is not sending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to North Korea as it was said to do as recently as the 1990s, remittances are still likely to be substantial enough that Kim Jong Un would feel the need to compromise if Japan took action.

I am lobbying the Japanese government to take three measures:

  • Force Chongryon into bankruptcy.
  • Close down Chongryon-related bank accounts in Japan, in accordance with US financial sanctions. (US Executive Order 13687 says that US persons, including Japanese banks doing business in the US, are not allowed to deal with sanctioned persons and entities, and there is no exception for transactions made outside the US.)
  • Revoke Tokyo Metropolitan Government approval of Chongryon’s Korea University in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, which prohibit teaching hazardous technology to North Korean nationals. Paragraph 17 of UNSCR 2270 (2016) lists “teaching or training in advanced physics, advanced computer simulation and related computer sciences, geospatial navigation, nuclear engineering, aerospace engineering, aeronautical engineering and related disciplines.”
    Paragraph 10 of UNSCR 2321 (2016) singles out teaching and training that could contribute to “proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities or the development of nuclear weapons delivery systems” including “advanced materials science, advanced chemical engineering, advanced mechanical engineering, advanced electrical engineering and advanced industrial engineering.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, after 16 credit unions controlled by Chongryon had collapsed, the Japanese government – controversially arguing that the law required it – paid 1.35 trillion yen (US12.5 billion) for a bailout.

Chongryon admitted responsibility for 63 billion yen worth of debt from the credit unions, but refused to pay it back. Now, with compounding, it owes more than 90 billion yen to the Japanese government.

In a reply to written question submitted by Jin Matsubara, a lawmaker and former national public safety commissioner, on March 5, 2019, the Japanese government stated that it was able to file bankruptcy against Chongryon and that if any Chongryon official should refuse to answer questions or lie to a bankruptcy administrator appointed by the court, he or she could face imprisonment of up to three years.

The reply was made by then-parliamentary vice-minister Takashi Nagao, a lawmaker who has been working hard to rescue Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean spy agencies. Before his appointment as parliamentary vice-minister, Nagao had written an op-ed for a Japanese opinion magazine in 2018 calling for the bankruptcy of Chongryon.

However, there are elements in the government who believe filing bankruptcy against the de facto North Korean embassy is too extreme. Their reluctance helps avoid embarrassment for Kim Jong Un.

According to Japanese bankruptcy law, creditors have the power to withdraw the status of bankruptcy. This means that after forcing Chongryon into bankruptcy, the Japanese government would possess a powerful bargaining chip. If Kim Jong Un could persuade the government to cancel the bankruptcy, he could claim victory over Japan and tell his people that he is invincible. He would not have to announce the extent of concessions he have had to make.

With regard to banking, North Korean officials and organizations in Japan that are targeted by US financial sanctions are, nevertheless, dealing with Japanese mega banks almost freely. Nagao made it clear in May that Japanese mega banks must respect US law. However, the financial authorities have not yet rigorously demanded that banks close down North Koreans’ accounts.

I have learned that another nuclear scientist sanctioned by the Japanese government, Yang Dok Cha, borrowed 52 million yen in October 2016 from a Japanese regional bank that has a representative office in New York. A technical consultancy firm run by Yang, Fusion Co Ltd, has been dealing with two Japanese mega banks that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Park Chun U is a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s parliament, and runs a successful gambling business in Japan. His companies are also dealing with NYSE-listed Japanese mega banks. He is clearly “an official of the Government of North Korea” and “an official of the Workers’ Party of Korea” – categories stipulated in US Executive Order 13687 as targets of sanctions.

A travel agency, Chugai Travel Co Ltd, is directly under Chongryon and thus a “controlled entity of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea,” another category stipulated in Executive Order 13687. Chugai Travel has been openly sending visitors to North Korea, and thus helping the regime earn foreign currency, and it is dealing with three NYSE-listed Japanese mega banks.

Both Japanese and US authorities should instruct Japanese banks to close down bank accounts of North Korean officials and organizations immediately.

Chongryon not only runs Korea University, it trains its officials there. All students of Korea University are members of the Korean Youth League in Japan, an organization that pledged to “raise youths to become true Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il-ists” after its delegation received an audience with Kim Jong Un in 2016.

Korea University has been a center of North Korea’s espionage activities in Japan. For example, Professor Choe Hung Gi, who specializes in robotics, made a great contribution to the North Korean munitions industry by creating a numerical control lathe in 1982 after studying at the University of Tokyo Institute of Industrial Science. He was praised in a magazine published by Chongryon: “It was a precious cornerstone for our fatherland that was working hard on the automation of factories under the slogan ‘technological revolution.’”

Without his contribution, North Korea would have had a more difficult time developing ballistic missiles.

Every UN member atate has the obligation to implement UN sanctions and the Japanese government must do so by revoking approval of Korea University.

North Korea has been selling missile technology to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and I believe it will also sell nuclear warheads to anyone who can afford them. Many experts believe North Korea has dozens of nuclear warheads and I cannot find any reason they would turn down an offer to pay hundreds of million dollars in cash for just one of them.

North Korea poses one of the gravest threats to the international community and every nation must do its utmost to maximize the pressure to denuclearize the regime in order to prevent nuclear weapons falling into the hands of another rogue state or terrorist organization.

Ken Kato

Ken Kato is director of the Tokyo-based group Human Rights in Asia.

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