Lee Dong Cheol, 61, and an employee of his trading firm were arrested by the Kyoto, Kanagawa, Shimane and Yamaguchi prefectural police departments on Thursday for allegedly importing North Korean matsutake mushrooms under the pretense that they were Chinese ones.
Lee lives in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, and is the president of Toho, a trading company in Taito Ward, Tokyo.
The firm's president and employee have been charged with violating the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law, which bans all imports from North Korea. Authorities also searched a house in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, belonging to Ho Jong Man, 83, chairman of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), to investigate the involvement of association officials in the case.
It is highly unusual for investigators to search the residence of the pro-Pyongyang group's top-ranking official. "The police searched my home, even though I have nothing to do with it. I sensed political pressure," Ho said in a statement to the press in front of his house. "I am prepared for an all-out battle. This will cause serious problems in the relations between North Korea and Japan."
According to a statement issued by the police, Lee and his employee brought about 1.2 tons of North Korean matsutake mushrooms - with a reported value of about ¥3,000,000 - through customs at Kansai Airport via Shanghai in September 2010 without approval from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. The products were falsely declared to be of Chinese origin, police said. Both suspects deny the charges.
The government has banned the import of all goods from North Korea since October 2006 as part of sanctions related to Pyongyang's nuclear testing. According to the Kyoto prefectural police, the case marks the first discovery of matsutake being illegally imported.
Kyoto police launched an investigation after obtaining information that North Korean matsutake mushrooms were being sold in a wholesale market in the prefecture. Products from the market were analysed and confirmed to have been produced in North Korea. When police traced the route of the shipment, it was uncovered that the two suspects had worked at a subsidiary of the association that has a history of importing North Korean matsutake mushrooms.
A relative of Ho is deeply engaged in the subsidiary's management, according to sources related to the investigation.
Ho took the post of the association's third chairman in May 2012. He also serves as a member of the Supreme People's Assembly in Pyongyang, the equivalent of the nation's parliament, and visited the country in September last year.