Authored by Mary Bohn

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After the liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese control in 1945, over two million Koreans who had traveled to Japan in search of labor, or as sex workers for the Japanese military, remained in the nation. By 1947, over a million of these Koreans returned to the Korean peninsula. However, the 600,000 Koreans who remained in Japan entered into a stateless existence as internal foreigners.1 After a second mass migration of over 93,000 Koreans to North Korea in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this community of Zainichi, Koreans residing in Japan, has grown to more than 700,000 and is now chiefly comprised of Japanese-born Zainichi of Korean descent.2 Since 1945, the community has divided into the 75 percent of Zainichi who claim South Korean nationality, receiving permanent-resident status in Japan, and the 25 percent who remain loyal to North Korea and maintain membership in the Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. These Zainichi loyal to North Korea remain stateless in Japan. Though they do not hold any political connection to North Korea and live an ocean apart from their proclaimed homeland, the Zainichi cling to their North Korean identity. This essay explores why certain Zainichi remain so loyal to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) despite their lack of individual political connection to the nation.

I deconstruct the loyalty of these Zainichi to the DPRK through the lens of their precarious statelessness in Japan, including their need for identity, belonging and connections to heritage within the Zainichi community. I argue that the limits of these Zainichi’s nationalism, or the compromises they make with regards to their ideology, constitute the community’s process of meeting its own needs for belonging, security, and identity.3 This North Korea-oriented nationalism is both consciously and subconsciously created as an answer to the Zainichi’s feelings of alienation in Japan, however limited in respect to their political association with the DPRK government itself. Finally, due to the fact that Zainichi identity rests within their national identification with North Korea, but their material security and livelihoods remain in Japan, these Zainichi exist in a liminal state between their Japanese locatedness and national loyalty to North Korea.

I approach this issue by first providing the framework of my analysis, “Needs talk,” which I adopt from Hae Yeon Choo in her essay “The Needs of Others.”4 I then use “Needs talk” as an interpretive method to examine how the Japanese government has regarded the Zainichi as an illegitimate constituency, treating them as sojourners and undesirable temporaries as opposed to permanent members of society. Furthermore, this frame demonstrates how the Zainichi have consequently developed into ‘internal others’ outside of Japan’s carefully protected boundaries of ethnic homogeneity. Since the Zainichi’s need for a homeland and belonging cannot be met through loyalty to Japan, I argue that the Zainichi are loyal to North Korea in the form of an imagined community.5 The documentary Dear Pyongyang (2005), directed by Zainichi director Yonghi Yang, serves as a case study in this analysis. I have selected Dear Pyongyang (2005) because it exemplifies the contradictions that Zainichi loyal to North Korea experience between their material existence in Japan and national connection to North Korea.6

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  1. Hester, Jeffry T., “Datsu Zainichi-ron: An Emerging Discourse on Belonging among Ethnic Koreans in Japan,” In Multiculturalism in the New Japan: Crossing the Boundaries Within, edited by Nelson H. Graburn, John Ertl, and R. Kenji, Tierney, New York: Berghahn Books, 2010, 140.
  2. “Koreans in Japan,” Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement,, (December 10, 2017),
  3. I refer to “nationalism” as loyalty or devotion to a nation, (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, s.v, “nationalism,” accessed December 9, 2017,
  4. Choo, Hae Yeon, “The Needs of Others,” in Multiethnic Korea?, edited by John Lie. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014.
  5. This refers to Benedict Anderson’s argument that the nation is an “imagined community,” or a community of people who imagine themselves connected to each other and a nation-state through shared language and perceptions of history, culture, and current events (Anderson 2016).
  6. Dear Pyongyang, Documentary, Directed by Yang Yonghi, Japan: Cheon, Inc., 2005,