As the world confronts the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons, a peak into the history of its nuclear weapons and missile programme displays evidence of funds and technology having flown out of an American ally in the region. Japan, a US ally since the end of World War II, fell victim to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) intelligence and subversive attacks that led to the flow of financial and technical assistance to the latter’s nuclear and missiles programme. The main reason for this is the successive Japanese governments’ and people’s inability to bolster counterintelligence capabilities and act against subversive Korean elements for historical reasons that date back to the World Wars. This article presents the North Korean subversive threat to Japan – a fairly known aspect – and the Japanese counterintelligence efforts to scuffle with the threat.


Chongryon – a surreal state within a state


Also known as the “Zainichi” Koreans, a large section of the Korean workers from colonial Japan (before 1945) continued to live in Japan as de facto North Koreans. After the war, these residents came together to form an association known as “Chongryon” – an abbreviated form, which has ties with North Korea and its supreme leader since Japan has no formal ties with the former. Working as a de facto embassy, the organisation is involved in all activities that a formal organisation is privileged with – like running schools, banks and businesses; as well as those that an enemy nation carries out – like ideological subversion and business espionage.


Chongryon’s ideological subversion presents an internal threat stronger than any other in Japan. Chongryon-run schools owe their allegiance to the supreme leader; impart lessons on North Korean history and ideologies of socialism and Korean nationalism to their children. The group’s institutions also receive funds from DPRK to the tune of millions of dollars. Despite such developments, the organisation was never a part of the public debate until 2002, when Kim Jong Il confessed to the abduction of Japanese citizens to develop them as spies. The declaration has had a drastic impact on the Japanese social fabric – the leftists mocking it as a conspiracy theory and the rightists targeting Koreans through racial attacks. These developments have only strengthened Chongryon’s Korean affinity and, on the other hand, Japanese nationalists’ resolve to eliminate the Koreans.


The business aspect of the group has a much more dangerous side to it, albeit less threatening currently. Chongryon comprises business and criminal enterprises that run lucrative businesses ranging from pubs and parlours to real-estate and prostitution rings. The kickbacks from these businesses make their way to Pyongyang. Chongryon-affiliated businesses have also worked with the Japanese technological firms and supplied the DPRK with technologies that enhance missiles’ targeting capabilities and increase their range. The businesses, however, are currently being hurt in part due to the termination of subsidies offered by the Japanese government.


Politics of Counter Subversion in Japan


Two fundamental factors – rooted in politics – have complicated the Japanese fight against North Korean subversion. The primary factor is largely based on the premise that counter-subversion is an intelligence-led activity and anything to do with ‘intelligence’ is viewed with animosity by the Japanese political community as well as the public. The pains associated with World War II are still afresh and formal intelligence gathering is viewed from a militaristic perspective. Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution forbids the use of military means to solve international conflicts, and the public largely views intelligence as an offshoot of the military. This factor has muddled the efforts of the Liberal Democratic Party’s efforts at revamping intelligence – through the first and second Machimura reports. However, the focus of the reports is global threats and the North Korean missile tests, with subversion being paid little attention.


The second important factor that has allowed the Chongryon to flourish in its subversive and criminal activities is the linkages with political personalities. Through the Cold War, liberal politicians received financial favours from the Chongryon to keep their political machineries functioning. These politicians had turned a blind eye to all illegal activities of Chongryon as long as the monies favoured them. Presently, although the revelations of Korean abduction of Japanese nationals have impacted the relationship between the two countries, ideological differences in the Japanese political community have facilitated Chongryon’s survival.


Counterintelligence – a Systemic Shortcoming in Japan


The Subversive Activities Prevention Act of 1952 is the prescriptive document that allows the Japanese justice system to identify threats to internal security and act accordingly. During the early years of Cold War, communist parties and labour unions were regarded as a threat and recently, following the Sarin gas attack, terrorism has fallen under the purview of internal security. However, counter-subversion as an agenda has never been dedicated the attention it deserves. Part of the problem is political – highlighted in the previous section – and the other part is the systemic flaw in Japan’s intelligence.


Counterintelligence powers are distributed between the Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA) and the National Police Agency (NPA). The bureaucratic battles show how archaic the Japanese intelligence reform efforts are. The attempts made in the last decade to revamp the intelligence mechanisms concentrate on foreign intelligence while the critical problem lies in the domestic factors like sharing of resources, funds, personnel and information. Within the realm of counterintelligence, the PSIA and NPA are at loggerheads as the latter absorbs the bulk of resources and it also enjoys arrest powers – a crucial factor in counterintelligence.  With such legal restrictions, the PSIA has had to conduct several covert operations and raise inside sources, using its meagre resources to unearth the subversive activities of Chongryon. The limitations of the PSIA in conducting surveillance and analysis can be addressed with greater cooperation from security bureaus like the NPA to act effectively against the Korean subverts in Japan. Pyongyang employs a range of mechanisms like buying off Japanese politicians, escalating cries of human rights violations, and inciting protests to protect Chongryon while its ground level operatives continue with their activities. In the face of such a well-developed threat, the uncooperative division of labour between the PSIA and the NPA works well for Pyongyang.


The changing geopolitics of East Asia and the uncertain future of US-Japan security alliance have led Japan to focus on the development of its foreign intelligence capabilities – an aspect that needs elaborate discussion elsewhere. But, suffice it to say that such efforts will be ill-founded if the island nation fails to bring together the foreign and domestic intelligence aspects to function together. Ethnic Koreans are the largest minority group in Japan and most of them have inclination towards Korea – either North or South. It is incumbent on the Japanese public to understand the changing nature of their national security threats and allow the development of a coherent intelligence system, even if it means deviating from their post-war established norms.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.