Why Is the Japanese Press So Interested in N.Korea?

      April 27, 2010 10:24

      Japanese newspaper reports over the weekend that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is about to visit China are not the first instance that dailies there have raced each other to deliver the latest scoop about North Korea. When the search for a successor to the North Korean leadership was hot news, Fuji TV beat its rivals in intense competition by exclusively reporting the whereabouts of Kim Jong-il's eldest son Jong-nam and second son Jong-chol.

      Major international news agencies jumped on the trail of Kim Jong-il's third son Jong-un last year, and the Mainichi Shimbun was the first to publish a photograph of him taken when he was 16 at a public secondary school in Bern, Switzerland. But the abundant scoops have included a number of duds.

      The Japanese press employs a relatively large number of reporters specializing in North Korea. Of the Mainichi Shimbun's four correspondents in China, one is wholly responsible for North Korean news. The Kyodo news agency and NHK also have correspondents in Beijing covering only North Korea.

      Katsumi Sawada, an international desk reporter for the Mainichi who was the first to report on Kim Jong-un's Swiss school days, said, "I believe the Japanese media began producing large numbers of articles on North Korea after September 2002, when the North admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens." Sawada, a former Seoul correspondent, added, "The media here felt guilty for failing to report on the dangers posed by North Korea." Now, they are apparently trying to compensate.

      Until the late 1990s, North Korea was virtually a taboo subject in Japan. One former correspondent in Seoul recalled, "In the 1980s, if I filed an article from Seoul about kidnappings by North Korean agents, my editor would spike it saying the story was fabricated by South Korean intelligence." Another reason for the reticence to cover North Korea was the power of a Pyongyang mouthpiece called the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, known as Chosen Soren in Japanese and as Chongryon in Korean, especially among intellectuals.

      "In the past, the [arch-conservative] Sankei Shimbun was the only one to criticize North Korea," the journalist said. "But the moment Kim Jong-il confessed to the kidnappings, the taboo was shattered and other media started racing to report on North Korea out of a sense of guilt." It is against this backdrop that the Japanese media are focusing on Kim Jong-il and the dynastic succession of power in North Korea, which are themes that appeal to Japanese readers.

      But Prof. Susumu Kohari at Shizuoka University said, "In reality, instability in North Korea is the only subject that can now generate international scoops for the Japanese media. The reason for the intense coverage of North Korea is the intense competition for scoops." Before the death of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997, the Japanese press pretty much had a monopoly on scoops out of China, but with increasing openness there the focus shifted to North Korea.

      There are also Japanese security interests. Tokyo views China as the main threat and sees problems on the Korean peninsula as factors that could destabilize the delicate balance of power in the region. Takabumi Suzuoki, a member of the editorial staff at the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, said, "There is a perception among Japanese that the only way to resolve the issues of kidnappings and the North Korean nuclear weapons program is for the Kim Jong-il regime to collapse. This seems to be the reason behind the intense interest in Kim Jong-il here."

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