[INTERVIEW] Documentary filmmaker zooms in on Zainichi Koreans

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[INTERVIEW] Documentary filmmaker zooms in on Zainichi Koreans

Filmmaker Kim Cheol-min / Courtesy of Indie Story

By Kwak Yeon-soo

It was a simple coincidence that documentary director Kim Cheol-min traveled to Mount Kumgang in 2002. There he encountered not only North Koreans, but Zainichi Koreans ― a Japanese term that means “living in Japan,” and refers to ethnic Koreans who began living in Japan during the 1910-45 occupation of Korea and remained there after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Feeling sadness and regret about his ignorance of their history, Kim embarked on a personal journey to learn more about the Zainichi Koreans in Japan. His documentary, “I Am from Chosun,” follows the story of the first generation of the Zainichi and their descendants, who identify themselves as people from “Chosun,”referring to the name of Korea before its division.

The 94-minute film examines the systemic discrimination against ethnic Koreans in Japan, as well as how they try to protect and pass on their identity to later generations against all odds. For the Zainichi, however, neither South Korea nor North Korea is their homeland. Their understanding of “homeland” differs from those who currently live on the Korean Peninsula.

“Between 2005 and 2016, I mostly reached out to the first-generation Zainichi Koreans who could share their full stories, from how they ended up in Japan and why they remained there after Liberation,” he said during an interview with The Korea Times, Tuesday.

“It turned out that many had planned to move back to Korea, but the country was still politically unstable and they were forbidden to bring all their money and possessions to Korea. So they waited and waited, but then the Korean War broke out.”

“I Am from Chosun” differs from many other films about the Zainichi, in that it not only depicts Japan’s discrimination against the Zainichi, but also South Korea’s oppression of them.

[INTERVIEW] Documentary filmmaker zooms in on Zainichi Koreans

A scene from the film, “I Am from Chosun” / Courtesy of Indie Story

Under the leadership of President Park Chung-hee in the 1970s, hundreds of second-generation Zainichi Koreans were falsely charged of being spies for North Korea.

Kang Jong-hun, one of the Zainichi that appears in the film, came to South Korea to study medicine for college, but spent 13 years in prison after being framed as a spy for North Korea. He was later found innocent.

“The Zainichi are the legacy of Japanese colonization, and they never experienced the North-South division of the Korean peninsula. So, it feels wrong to call them ‘traitors’ simply because they had traveled to North Korea. Some weren’t even allowed into South Korea. We shouldn’t act hostile toward them,” Kim said.

Despite its sympathetic portrayal of the Zainichi community, Kim touches only vaguely on the political clashes between different Zainichi groups in Japan. For instance, “Mindan” is affiliated with South Korea, whereas “Chongryon” is affiliated with North Korea.

Chosun schools, shown in the film, are built and financially supported by the North Korean regime, but the filmmaker uses them to show they provide children of Korean ancestry with the chance to learn the Korean language and preserve a Korean identity.

Asked about the implications of Chosun schools, he said, “Many South Koreans say that we shouldn’t deal with Chosun schools because they are sponsored by North Korea. But that proves our prejudiced minds. Why can’t we look at this issue as related to Korean heritage, not to political or ideological differences?”

He added, “I want the viewers to look back at our tragic history of division and think about the struggle of minority ethnic groups.”

The film won the jury award at the 2020 DMZ International Documentary Film Festival.

“I Am from Chosun” will hit local theaters, Dec. 9.

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