Japan's North Korean schools

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MARCO WERMAN: Japan is tackling a school issue, though it's not about school lunches. The country is considering legislation that would make public high schools tuition free. Right now Japanese public high schoolers have to pay about $100.00 a month. Under the bill, private school students would also get some financial aid. All, except students who attend one particular type of school, Japan's "North Korean" schools. Akiko Fujita has the story from Tokyo.

AKIKO FUJITA: It's easy to forget what country you're in inside a North Korean, or Chosen high school. Students sing songs in Korean. Young girls walk around dressed in black chogori uniforms. Teachers conduct classes in Korean with framed portraits of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his father Kim Il Sung on their walls. But these schools are all in Japan and most of the 2,000 student enrolled are Japanese natives. Che In Te is the principal of the Chosen school in the Ibaraki Prefecture north of Tokyo. He says students come to learn about their Korean roots and their language. Che says our parent's generation founded these schools so we could get in touch with our identity and culture. They wanted us to be able to use the language and names that they couldn't. Che's parents were among Korean natives who were forced to become Japanese citizens during Japan's colonial rule over Korea. They lost that citizenship after Japan's defeat in World War II. But they stayed in Japan and started about 500 Korean schools. Che says nearly 50,000 student enrolled the first year in 1945. But the schools struggled financially. In 1957 a one million dollar donation from the North Korean government rescued those schools. Che says his father was so grateful he vowed to live as a North Korean, despite his South Korean roots. They helped us despite the financial hardships in their own country, Che says. We would not be here if it weren't for their help. Our students are indebted to the North. But most Japanese don't have such warm feelings for North Korea. They associate the North with the abduction of more than a dozen Japanese 30 years ago. Some are still unaccounted for. Hiroshi Nakai is the Japanese minister in charge of the North Korean abduction issue. When the Prime Minister proposed a program to reduce tuition for Japanese high school students, Nakai asked that North Korean schools be left out. He says the school is not just related to the North, it is North Korea. To give money to the school would amount to supporting North Korea directly. Others have voiced similar concerns. That's inflamed long simmering tensions between the Japanese government and the local Korean community. Supporters of the Korean schools say it's unfair to play politics with a student's education. Student Ha Ryom Yun says the proposed $1,200.00 aid would help pay a quarter of his private tuition. Ha shares his classroom with South Korean and Japanese students. I've been in Japan since the day I was born he says. I've never even visited my native country. I never questioned my identity, but this issue has made me realize that I need to fight for our culture. The Prime Minister has asked the Education Ministry to review the school's curriculum before making a final decision on tuition waivers. In the meantime, principal Che In Te says he'll rely on financial support from the local government, parents and Pyongyang to keep his school going. The North Korean government has already provided more than 500 million dollars over the decades and Che says it has continued to pay despite the country's own financial struggles. One reason why Che refuses to take down the portrait of the North Korean leader. I love North Korea he says. No matter what people say, no matter how dangerous people say it is, I will continue to love it. For The World, I'm Akiko Fujita in the Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan.