North Koreans in Japan 'confused' by Kim death

TOKYO - Pro-Pyongyang Korean communities in Japan were "confused" but tight-lipped Tuesday, a day after the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il was announced.

In a seemingly highly disciplined response, reporters seeking reactions from some of the tens of thousands of Koreans loyal to the Stalinist regime were met by an almost unbroken wall of silence.

Japan's 700,000-strong Korean community are mostly descendants of migrants and forced workers from Tokyo's sometimes brutal 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula, and chose sides after it was divided along the 38th parallel.

The pro-Pyongyang minority have maintained their loyalties and have their own civic organisations and educational institutions funded by the North, while integration with the host culture is strongly discouraged.

Even in Japan the secretiveness of the hardline communist regime was being closely observed.

"Both students and faculty members, we are all deeply confused," said an official at the gate of Korea University in western Tokyo. "We just want to be left alone for some time."

Shortly afterwards a guard clad in a black suit marched a team from Agence France-Presse to a nearby train station.

"This is not out of ill feelings towards the Japanese or the French," he said. "We just don't want to be reported on out of pure curiosity, as most Japanese media do about us."

North Korean flags flew at half mast at the university, and at the North Korean residents' association headquarters, the de facto embassy in Japan, which has no diplomatic ties and habitually hostile relations with Pyongyang.

At a North Korean-funded school in Tokyo a male pupil said: "We have been told not to speak to journalists," as he walked through the gate.

Two officials soon emerged and shooed an AFP team away from the premises.

North Korean residents of Japan - some of them holders of North Korean nationality - are an important source of hard currency for the cash-strapped regime, with their remittances helping the sanctions-hit country buy much-needed imports.

Many in Japan view the regime with open hostility, especially after a number of Japanese citizens were abducted in the 1970s and 80s and press-ganged into training Pyongyang's spies in the country's language and customs.

In turn, the pro-Pyongyang Korean communities in Japan have been often subjected to harassment by nationalist groups.

"We don't want to see our students targeted again," said the university guard, explaining why the institution was shunning media attention.