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Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005

North Korea boycott sees some impact

Cheap suits easy target, not seafood


Staff writer

OSAKA -- As the government continues to debate whether to impose economic sanctions on Pyongyang, nongovernmental organizations that believe the North is still holding Japanese abductees are leading a nationwide call for a voluntary boycott of North Korean-made goods.

News photo
Relatives of Japanese who were abducted to North Korea face reporters May 22 in Tokyo after Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

But although the number of consumer goods bearing North Korean labels has visibly declined of late, experts on the reclusive state are divided over whether this means fewer products are coming in or they are merely being given another country of origin, including seafood caught in North Korean waters but identified as Russian or Chinese.

During the first half of 2004, cheap North Korean-made products, including suits, could easily be found at discount outlets, while supermarkets stocked a variety of cheap seafood labeled as being from North Korea.

On the other end of the spectrum, boxes of expensive North Korean "matsutake" mushrooms were prominently displayed in the better supermarkets, selling for 10,000 yen to 20,000 yen each.

But relatives of Japanese abducted to North Korea and their supporters launched a boycott of North Korean products after the May summit between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Their campaign was conducted via the Internet and by word of mouth.

"We're calling on the public to check the labels of goods, especially seafood, very carefully and to not buy anything that is labeled North Korean," said Kazuhiro Araki, head of the Investigation Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea (COMJAM). "I think our campaign has put pressure on North Korea."

Has the boycott worked?

Lee Young Hwa, a professor at Kansai University who is an expert on the North Korean economy, said the effort has had some effect.

"You used to see advertisements in the media and on the streets pitching stores selling North Korean-made suits for 10,000 yen. You don't see the ads, nor the suits, as much as you used to," he said. "More and more Japanese will no longer buy goods they know are North Korean, even if those goods are extremely cheap."

The fashion set may breath a sigh of relief that, thanks to boycott pressure, North Korean suits are no longer easily found. But other products are not so easily boycotted.

"A lot of seafood coming into Japan, especially 'uni' (sea urchin), is simply labeled as being from Russia, when in fact it was caught in North Korean waters," Lee said.

Ryutaro Hirata, a spokesman for the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped to North Korea (NARKN), said his group is currently studying ways to pressure the government to ensure that, if and when official sanctions are imposed, they are as effective as possible, especially on products like seafood.

Thanks to a nationwide network of activists and supporters, both NARKN and COMJAM are well-organized and well-funded.

But Hataru Nomura, a freelance journalist and editor who has written extensively on North Korea-Japan relations, said their public influence has decreased since May, when they criticized the prime minister's trip to North Korea, a trip the majority of Japanese, according to various media polls, considered a success. Koizumi managed to secure the release of family members of the five known surviving Japanese abductees.

"Both groups may very well step up their efforts, especially if the Japanese government does not impose formal sanctions on North Korea," Nomura said. "But trust in NARKN in particular is now quite low. The group needs to reorganize with different people and launch a new movement in order to be more effective."

Another boycott issue isn't consumer-oriented.

In October, 10 construction companies announced they intended to send a mission to North Korea, ostensibly to see what they could do to help the country with various civil engineering projects in the event that Tokyo someday establishes diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

But the proposed trip reminded many of the late Liberal Democratic Party kingmaker Shin Kanemaru's trip to North Korea in 1990.

Several in Kanemaru's delegation who represented construction firms were interested in procuring sand from North Korean riverbeds, because it was nearly salt-free and perfect for making high-quality cement.

After a public backlash in the more recent case, the 10 companies announced they were shelving their trip. Since then, supporters of the boycott have also been calling for the contractors to be banned from bidding on public works projects.

Such a move will probably prove extremely difficult.

"Given the fact that these firms are politically very well-connected and have been pushing for normalization of relations with North Korea for a long time, I don't think they'd worry too much about a domestic boycott," Lee said. "I also do not think such a campaign would be all that effective."



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