Many North Korean living in Japan have welcomed recent developments that lay the groundwork for reconciliation between their home country and its southern neighbour – with some hard core supporters of the regime even declaring Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic manoeuvring a “masterful victory”.
“I would say that virtually 100 per cent of the North Korean community here is delighted by this news and happily surprised about how fast the changes have come about,” said Chung Hyon-suk, who lives in Tokyo but has relatives in the North Korean port city of Wonsan.
“All my family and North Korean friends spent all day on Friday sitting in front of the television watching everything that was happening in Panmunjom and discussing what it all means.
The North Korean schools cancelled classes in the afternoon and set up big-screen televisions in their gymnasiums so that the students could watch history being made.
“I was working that day and I was listening to coverage on an earpiece and I could not wait to get home to see the television coverage, but my boss saw me and he knew how much it meant to me, so he told me to go ahead and watch the television. People I know have been in tears of happiness and there has been a lot of praise for both leaders, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in.”
The speed of the rapprochement caught virtually everyone by surprise, said Chung, pointing out that until Kim’s New Year’s Day address, in which he first suggested a North Korean team of athletes might be able to travel to South Korea to take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, relations between Seoul and Pyongyang had been at a dangerously low ebb.
“But I believe that Moon had already built up contacts in the North over the months before and that enabled both sides to make rapid progress,” she said.
Although the last time she was able to visit the North was more than 20 years ago, Chung hopes she may be able to return in the near future.
“My father was from the North but after he died last year we were able to contact our relatives in Wonsan and tell them the news,” she said. “We have to wait to see how things develop from this point on, but it would be wonderful to meet them for myself.”
North Korean residents of Japan speculated they might soon be permitted to travel to South Korea, she said, if Moon continued to “gradually open the door”.
Kim Myong-chol, executive director of the Japan-based Centre for North Korea-US Peace and an
unofficial mouthpiece of the Pyongyang regime, agreed Koreans affiliated with the North were “very excited and optimistic” .
“The timing and diplomatic moves of Kim Jong-un were perfect,” he declared. “First of all, he made North Korea into a nuclear power and that gave the South and the US no choice but to negotiate.”
Kim Jong-un realised that US President Donald Trump was “keen to meet him and talk, which he used to his advantage,” Kim Myong-chol insisted.
“This is a decisive, masterful victory over the US and South Korea, a historic upset against a superpower brought about by Kim alone. Never before has a US president agreed to meet a North Korean leader and that is what he has forced Trump to do.
“This is a huge climbdown by the US, and Trump personally, because only a few months ago he was threatening to ‘crush’ North Korea. Now he is planning to meet him and calling him ‘honourable’.
“The US may have had the military capability to hit North Korea with nuclear weapons but it lacked the political will. Only Kim had both the political will and the missiles to launch such an attack, which would have put the whole of the US at risk.”
Kim Sun-hee, however, is less confident that meaningful change is just around the corner.
Born in Kobe, she was a journalist for the North Korean newspaper in Japan – operated by Chongryun, the association of North Korean residents of Japan – before moving to London a few years ago.
“Some of my friends who still have good relationships with Chongryun, for example, their children go to Korean schools or they work for the organisation, were just delighted,” she said.
“They uploaded their joy on their Facebook pages and I was surprised at the difference between their pure joy and my cynicism,” she said. “I could not help but think we were watching just another political performance.
“I think my lack of optimism is because when it comes to the two Koreas, it is not down to just those two countries but also other nations, such as the US and China,” she said.
“I hope this is a turning point in our sad history, but I need to see how America reacts, to be honest.”
It is not clear whether the somewhat vague assurances given at the Korean summit will be fulfilled, and even under the best-case scenario, reunification of the two Koreas remains decades away, according to Chung.
“The systems of the two nations are too different … it will take at least 20 years and more probably 50 years for unification,” she said. “The North has in the past proposed the creation of a confederation of the two states and I think that might well be the most realistic way forward. There are many things that still need to be achieved and it will take time and a lot of goodwill, but at least the first step has been taken by the two sides.”