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Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Kids at pro-North high schools fret tuition waiver snub
Institutions risk being hostage to row over Pyongyang's abductions
By JUN HONGO
For Om Kwan Ja, excluding "chosen gakko" pro-Pyongyang schools from the government's tuition-waiver program would mean more than just having to shell out extra cash for her kids' education. It's a problem that touches on her family's identity, especially for her son, who is studying at Tokyo Korean Junior & Senior High School in Kita Ward.
"I felt it necessary that my children learn the culture and language (of North Korea) at the school, since we as parents can't provide that," Om, a fourth-generation Korean residing in Tokyo, told The Japan Times.
"The students there are regular high school kids. They will become a part of Japanese society in the future," Om said, adding that it would be unreasonable if the government were to make them ineligible for the waiver program due to diplomatic tension between the two countries.
Although the Constitution stipulates that all people are equal under the law and entitled to an education, public opinion is divided on whether the ruling coalition's bill to make education free through high school should be extended to pro-Pyongyang schools. But critics say excluding students at those schools from the program would be a grave mistake and could foster ethnic discrimination.
Under the bill being deliberated in the Diet, the government will scrap tuition for students attending public high schools and provide ¥120,000 per year to those attending private schools or certified educational institutions. The annual grant would also apply to international schools deemed eligible by the education ministry.
Education is compulsory through junior high school. The bill is aimed at giving greater opportunity for students to enter high school, particularly those from low-income families.
But controversy arose last month when Hiroshi Nakai, state minister in charge of the North Korean abduction issue, said at a news conference that he will look into the possibility of excluding North Korea-affiliated schools from the program. The government has imposed economic sanctions on North Korea over its past abductions of Japanese nationals, as well as its nuclear weapons program.
"This is about the people of a country that our government has imposed sanctions on due to the abductions," Nakai said on Feb. 26. He told reporters that he discussed the issue with education minister Tatsuo Kawabata, who will be responsible for determining which schools are eligible for the waiver program once the bill is passed.
Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto has also been blunt on the issue, saying tax money shouldn't be used for pro-Pyongyang schools.
"The abduction issue has been certified by the Japanese government as an illegal act conducted by North Korea," Hashimoto said earlier this month. If pro-Pyongyang schools have strong ties with the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), which acts as North Korea's unofficial embassy, tax money should not be provided to them, Hashimoto has said.
Nakai and Hashimoto's views are widely shared by rightwing groups, which criticize chosen gakko for their links with the North. Although he denies any connection between the tuition waivers and the abduction issue, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama acknowledged that the curriculum at pro-Pyongyang schools may raise questions about their eligibility.
Under the bill, which is expected to clear the Diet by the end of March, in time for the start of the new school year in April, subsidies for schools will be provided only if they are deemed to provide education equivalent to Japanese high schools. Ministry directives are expected to determine their eligibility by comparing education at schools catering to foreign students with the curriculum in their home countries, as well as guidelines in Japan.
Some lawmakers in the ruling coalition say the education ministry cannot compare the curriculum at pro-Pyongyang schools with those of North Korea because Japan and the North don't have diplomatic relations.
But others, including Social Democratic Party head Mizuho Fukushima and Shizuka Kamei, leader of Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party), are opposed to excluding the schools, saying there is no need to discriminate against them.
Pro-Pyongyang schools have been operating in Japan since the 1950s, set up by Koreans who stayed in Japan after being conscripted by the military during the war, or who came here to work or were brought over for forced labor.
Korean students today are split between those affiliated with the North and those with South Korean nationality.
The pro-Pyongyang schools have long been criticized by the Japanese media for lauding North Korean leaders, including Kim Jong Il and his father, Kim Il Sung, and putting their pictures in classrooms.
In recent years, however, the schools have changed their practices. "We only hang the portraits of the two on special occasions at high schools," Choe In Tae, vice chairman of Conference of Principals of Korean High Schools in Japan, told The Japan Times. At schools for younger children, the portraits have been removed entirely.
Choe doesn't hide the fact that pro-Pyongyang schools differ from their Japanese counterparts. "We teach that Takeshima is South Korea's territory," he said, touching on the territorial dispute over a pair of rocky islets in the Sea of Japan held by South Korea and known as Dokdo there.
But at a news conference last week at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, Choe said any reasonable person who examined the curriculum of his schools would conclude they should be eligible for the tuition waiver.
"Our schools provide the same curriculum as regular Japanese schools," he said. "They are operating under educational guidelines in Japan and we provide reports to local governments as requested," Choe added, insisting it would violate the students' basic rights if the schools are excluded from the waiver program.
Asked about the connection between the schools, Chongryon and the abduction of Japanese, Choe became visibly upset and said his students should not be mentioned in connection with the issue.
Om, the mother of a student in a pro-Pyongyang school, agreed.
"Personally, I feel that the abduction issue is regrettable," but she said it has nothing to do with the students.
"The abduction issue is something that should be resolved between the governments, and shouldn't be linked to us," she said, expressing hope that Hatoyama's political motto of "fraternity" is extended to everyone, including her children and their schools.