- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

TOKYO Yoshiaki Saito points to a row of live crabs at the front of his shop in Tokyo's largest seafood market. "Those are from Russia, those from Japan," he says.

"And these are from North Korea."

Most Japanese would be surprised.

Japan and North Korea have little in common but enmity. But perhaps no other country can claim a greater role than Japan in propping up North Korea's isolationist and often belligerent regime.

It's nothing new, but the connection is under new scrutiny because of Pyongyang's withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its decision to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor capable of supplying materials to nuclear weapons.

With crabs, sea urchins and men's suits, and through a black-market trade suspected to include narcotics and counterfeit cash, North Korea sucks hundreds of millions of dollars out of its rich neighbor each year.

Instead of spending the money on its hungry, impoverished people, experts here say, North Korea is using the profits to fund its military ambitions, including nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach Japan and the United States.

"The military gets money from these exports," said Toshio Miyatsuka, a professor at Yamanashi Gakuin University. "If money gained from this trade is put into long-range missiles that target Japan, then we would be strangling ourselves."

Just a day or two away by ship, Japan is by far North Korea's biggest customer, gobbling up as much as a quarter of its exports.

North Korea shipped $225.62 million worth of goods to Japan in 2001, according to figures compiled by the Korea Trade Investment Promotion Agency in South Korea. Its next-biggest markets were South Korea, which imported $176.17 million, and China, $166.73 million.

Seafood and gourmet mushrooms are a major export to Japan, as are men's suits 650,000 of them last year, more than were bought from Italy and Hong Kong, according to the Japan Textiles Importers' Association.

Another prime source of funds is Japan's $9.3 billion market in drugs, which police believe the North eagerly supplies. North Koreans have also been arrested for counterfeiting U.S. and Japanese currency.

Also critical are payments sent back by Koreans living in Japan.

Numbering about 200,000, they are mostly second- and third-generation residents whose parents and grandparents came to Japan to work during its occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

After World War II, many stayed behind, their loyalties divided between North and South when their homeland was split in half.

Experts say Pyongyang milks the community for cash, especially those with relatives who moved to North Korea between 1959 and 1985 as a part of a repatriation campaign. They fear those relatives will suffer if they don't pay up.

"Some 93,0000 people went to the North in the repatriation movement. It is as though they are all being held hostage," said Katsuei Hirasawa, a lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and an outspoken critic of North Korea.

Mr. Hirasawa estimates that Koreans in Japan send roughly $85 million a year to North Korea. If the money flow stops and Japan imposes sanctions, "North Korea will collapse," Mr. Hirasawa said.

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