The pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon) is having trouble keeping up with remittances to North Korea, and that has apparently led to a sharp decline in its influence there.
Chongryon serves as North Korea's de facto embassy in Japan because the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations. In its heyday, Chongryon wielded formidable political and cultural clout.
But that is not the case anymore.
Chongryon previously came under the control of Room No. 225, an independent department within the Cabinet. But it is now overseen by the United Front Department of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, according to a source knowledgeable about North Korean matters. Although the shift resulted from a merger of the two departments, experts believe the move reflects Chongryon's waning influence in North Korea.
In the past, North Korean agencies competed to curry favor with Tokyo-based Chongryon because of its financial assets. At one time, the External Liaison Department of the Workers' Party oversaw Chongryon. However, the influence of that department within North Korea is believed to have declined along with the diminishing financial strength of Chongryon.
That led to Room No. 225 overseeing Chongryon several years ago. It is led by Kang Ju Il. The United Front Department's director is Kim Yang Gon. Those two are said to have engaged in a fierce struggle in deciding who would lead the department, and personal animosity remains between them.
Room No. 225 was in charge of handling the May visit to Pyongyang of Isao Iijima, a special Cabinet adviser for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. However, during Iijima's visit, neither Kim Yang Gon nor Jang Song Thaek met with Iijima. Jang is vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un through marriage. Jang is said to be close to Kim Yang Gon.
However, Jang did meet with Upper House member Antonio Inoki of the Japan Restoration Party when he visited North Korea in July.
Officials within the Japanese government believe that Jang and Kim Yang Gon will play leading roles in dealing with Japan in the future.
The United Front Department mainly handles relations with South Korea. Kim Yang Gon visited South Korea in August 2009 and he was also deeply involved in the temporary withdrawal of North Korean laborers from the Kaesong Industrial Zone in April.
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