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Saturday, Oct. 21, 2006

North's sinister acts here may find warier public in nuke test's wake

Staff writer

OSAKA -- North Korea's nuclear test has fueled the Japanese public's fear that the nation faces a serious threat from the Stalinist state, something that has been established by the numerous accounts from former spies and journalists about what Pyongyang is up to here.

News photo
The North Korea ferry Mangyongbong-92 enters Niigata port May 18, 2005, as supporters of relatives of Japanese abductees protest on shore. KYODO PHOTO

Since 1999, there have been a slew of books and articles about North Korea's secret activities in Japan. Former North Korean spies, ex-members of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryun), freelance journalists and people who have fled North Korea have all told stories of espionage and smuggling.

Tales are legion of shoe boxes full of cash passing customs officials who look the other way, North Korean agents landing on remote beaches in the dead of night, and coded radio messages on Radio Pyongyang telling senior members of Chongryun to kidnap Japanese citizens, spy on U.S. military installations or to help smuggle technology to the North.

One of the first North Korean agents to go public with his story was the late Chang Young Ung, a Japanese-born Korean who was a high-level member of Chongryun in Kobe. Chang, code name Blacksnake, spied on Japan for over a quarter century until the early 1990s. His memoirs, published in late 1999, were the first of their kind. The book sent shock waves through Japan.

Chang told The Japan Times in 2000, the year before he died, that he helped move billions of yen in money and goods into North Korea.

"Most of what I did was completely legal. During the 1970s and 1980s it was ridiculously easy to transfer all sorts of sensitive electronic parts and funnel cash to North Korea. Port authorities in Japan, especially in Niigata, didn't bother to carefully inspect either the cargo or hand luggage of passengers on ships to North Korea," Chang said.

How much cash from Japan has ended up in North Korea will never be known but most experts say it is at least in the tens of trillions of yen.

Freelance journalist Hataru Nomura, who wrote about Chongyrun and its financial dealings with Japan and North Korea in his 1999 book "Kitachosen Soukin Giwaku" ("Suspicious Money Transfers to North Korea"), said estimates as to how much yen has gone to Pyongyang varies greatly, but during the bubble economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the amount moved, both legally and illegally, was about 60 billion yen annually.

Most experts say it's impossible to know how much money is going into North Korea illegally now, but they all agree it is only a fraction of what was moved during the bubble.

"I would imagine that the total amount of money is now about one-tenth of what it was at the peak," said 63-year-old Isao Sakamoto (his pseudonym), a Japanese who spied for North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s, and received two medals from Pyongyang for his service.

His estimate translates into about 6 billion yen a year. Other figures go as low 3.6 billion yen annually.

Sakamoto said that much of the illegal cash in the 1970s and 1980s was from pachinko parlors run by Chongyrun members, who would stuff it into suitcases and walk them past customs officials, especially in Niigata Prefecture, where a ferry runs to North Korea. By the mid-1990s, he said, that income had all but dried up.

"Chongyrun and Niigata customs officials had an agreement whereby passengers wouldn't be searched too closely. And often, inspections of the cargo were nothing more than quick glance.

While officials from the Public Security Investigation Agency were often on hand to observe, they never stopped people from getting on, or off, the ships," the ex-spy said.

Sakamoto, who was an executive of a Chongryun-affiliated trading company, made numerous secret trips to North Korea, and Pyongyang officials often asked to give information on the state of Japanese politics and the economy, or help to arrange what he said were legal cash transfers.

He said he sent coded radio messages to Pyongyang about U.S. military activities here and about Japan's policy on North Korea. Like former agent Chang, Sakamoto insisted he did nothing illegal, which he said was why Japan never arrested him.

Perhaps the most sensational story, one that increased calls for the toughest possible sanctions on North Korea, is from former Chongyrun top official Han Gwang Hee. Han and journalist Nomura published a book in 2002 about Han's experiences just a few months before the first summit between then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Han, who died not long after the book was published, said part of his job was to provide North Korea with a map of isolated spots along the Sea of Japan, preferably near small train stations.

"I've no doubt Han's map was used by North Korean agents who landed in Japan to conduct surveillance activities and, possibly, kidnap Japanese," Nomura said.

Politicians, including the hawkish Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, take these claims seriously. Lawmakers in all the parties use the stories when they want to talk about imposing sanctions on North Korea, However, few of them have asked the Diet to formally investigate what Chongyrun knows about the flow of cash and goods into North Korea.

"The activities of North Korean spies and their allies in Japan is one of the last great taboos of the postwar era," said Makoto Kurosaka, a professor at Osaka University of Economics and a leading advocate for tough sanctions against Pyongyang. "A thorough investigation would reveal just how complicit Japan's past and present leaders have been in allowing North Korea to maintain the Kim regime and to build missiles and nuclear weapons."

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