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Editorial: Put children first when debating subsidies to pro-Pyongyang schools

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has issued a notice demanding transparency in subsidies that prefectural governments provide to pro-Pyongyang Korean schools in Japan. Specifically, the ministry is asking prefectural governments to clarify whether such subsidies serve the public interest and are being used for their specified purposes as well as provide information on such financial assistance to local residents.

    The ministry has denied that the notice is intended to put pressure on pro-Pyongyang schools. "The notice has nothing to do with sanctions on North Korea. Nor does it urge local bodies to reduce or suspend subsidies," a ministry official said.

    Still, it is extremely rare for the central government to issue a notice regarding the provision of subsidies, which fall under local bodies' authority. Local governments are feared to take the notice as de-facto pressure to cut subsidies and uniformly exercise self-restraint in extending such aid to pro-North Korean schools.

    North Korea has been diplomatically confronting Japan and the international community with its abduction of Japanese nationals, which is a crime that Pyongyang committed as a state, as well as its nuclear tests and ballistic missile development that threaten peace in East Asia.

    In connection with the sanctions, some legislators from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and others have insisted that subsidies to pro-Pyongyang schools be suspended. Critics have pointed out that these schools' use of subsidies lack transparency. The notice was issued against the backdrop of such a situation.

    However, the benefits to children should be prioritized when considering the issue.

    It is natural to put diplomatic pressure, such as severe sanctions, on North Korea, but the pros and cons of constraining the education of children is completely a separate matter.

    Pro-Pyongyang Korean schools, which are classified as "miscellaneous schools" under the School Education Act, have been licensed by 28 of the country's 47 prefectural governments. There are 68 such schools across Japan, including dormant ones. Over 6,000 preschool- and elementary, junior high and high school-age children are enrolled at these schools. In addition to these schools, there is also the Korea University in Kodaira, western Tokyo.

    According to the education ministry, the amount of subsidies to pro-North Korea schools has been on a downward trend since around the 2010 academic year. In the school year of 2014, 18 prefectural governments extended a total of 186.03 million yen and 114 municipal governments provided a combined 185.91 million yen in subsidies to these schools. These schools reportedly use the local government subsidies to finance their school management expenses and assistance to the parents of students.

    Many educational institutions including private schools receive public financial aid based on the principle of guaranteeing the right and opportunities to receive education. Pro-North Korean schools provide classes largely in line with the curriculum guidelines set by the education ministry in addition to ethnic and cultural education. Many graduates of these schools advance to Japanese universities.

    Despite these positives, pro-Pyongyang schools need to reform themselves.

    The education ministry notice is based on the government's recognition that the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, known as "Chongryon," influences these schools' education content as well as their personnel and fiscal affairs.

    There have been numerous people who have called into question pro-North Korean schools' personality cult of the North Korean leader and historical perceptions. These schools appear to regard the notice as a matter related to discrimination but irrelevant to their education content. These schools should consider reforming themselves into schools more open to the public while keeping in mind such criticism.

    Children at pro-Pyongyang schools have grown up in a Japanese social climate. They have largely shared the living environment and values of Japanese nationals.

    There are schools that have nurtured their friendly relations with local communities by interacting with residents through sports and other activities. There are examples of pro-North Korean schools co-hosting events with regional communities. As such, there is sufficient room for these schools pursuing new ways to coexist with society.

    The ministry as well as pro-Pyongyang schools should pursue a long-term approach that will bring benefits to students as well as the general public.

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