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SEPTEMBER 20, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 11

The Man Who Hated Japanese
The release of a long-serving prisoner gives a boost to Tokyo's relations with South Korea

Kyodo News
NEW MAN: Kwon arrives to cheers in Pusan, 31 years after his arrest.
When Kwon Hee Ro entered a hostess bar in Shimizu City in central Japan on Feb. 20, 1968, he wasn't there for the companionship. Without warning, he walked up to a table and shot dead two yakuza gangsters with a hunting rifle. He then fled to a nearby hot springs resort, where he seized 13 hostages and holed up for four days while police and camera crews camped outside. An ethnic Korean, Kwon said he wouldn't surrender until a Japanese detective he had seen insulting a Korean apologized publicly. Police finally captured him by disguising a group of officers as reporters; Kwon allowed them in for an "interview." After a trial that lasted eight years, Kwon was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Last week, Japan released Kwon, now a frail man of 70. Under heavy security he flew to Pusan, South Korea, where he was greeted by crowds of cheering well-wishers. Kwon's compatriots are keenly aware that most of Japan's 650,000 ethnic Koreans are descended from men and women driven to immigrate, or taken to Japan as laborers against their will, when the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony. For some Koreans, Kwon is a poignant reminder of that bitter era, and of the prejudice faced by Koreans who stayed on after Japan's World War II defeat. Yet if Kwon stands as a symbol of old hatreds, his freedom also signals a warming in relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Although officials deny politics was involved--Kwon was one of Japan's longest-serving prisoners and was overdue for release--the gesture seemed designed to build on the new goodwill. "The time was ripe," says Chung Hae Chang, a former Korean justice minister who worked for the discharge. "Kwon's release will help to improve relations."

Ties between Korea and Japan have been mostly cool during the postwar years amid lingering Korean resentment of Japanese rule and Tokyo's reluctance to atone for it fully. Since Korean President Kim Dae Jung's election a year and a half ago, however, the winds have shifted considerably. Making clear to Japanese leaders his willingness to turn a page on the past, Kim persuaded Japan to give him a written apology during his visit to Tokyo last October. Seoul followed up by starting to lift a decades-long ban on Japanese "cultural imports," such as comic books and pop songs. In August, Japan and South Korea held their first joint naval exercises, and Korean Prime Minister Kim Jong Pil visited Tokyo for talks earlier this month. The mood has gotten so cozy that Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi personally went to a Tokyo station to see Kim off as he boarded a train for Kyoto.

Times have certainly changed since the 1920s, when Kwon's mother came to Japan looking for work and met Kwon's father, a stevedore. When Kwon was a toddler, his father died in a dockside accident. To eke out a living, his mother worked as a ragpicker. Children would throw stones and ridicule the family as "dirty Koreans," Kwon recalls. At school, according to Park Sam Joong, a Buddhist monk who helped win Kwon's release, the other children would taunt Kwon at lunchtime when they saw his kimchi, Korean pickled cabbage. More than once, he was beaten by classmates as he tried to hang on to his lunchbox. But the teacher scolded him, not his tormentors.

Kwon soon drifted away from school and into delinquency. After the war, he was in and out of prison as he drifted into petty crime and later armed robbery. During one stint in the hole, he determined to go straight, earning certification as an auto mechanic. But when he got out, he found nobody wanted to hire a Korean. Running a restaurant with his wife kept him out of trouble for a while, but they eventually split up. One day he happened to pass a street scene where a detective was haranguing a Korean in July 1967, according to an account of his life based on his court testimony. He became obsessed with the incident, convinced that his own treatment at the hands of the Japanese was driving the downward spiral of his life. The details of his entanglement with the yakuza are murky, but the shooting and hostage-taking less than a year later seemed to be acts of a man driven beyond the limits of his endurance.

Japanese treatment of its resident Koreans has slowly improved since Kwon's stand-off at the mountain inn. Tokyo recently abolished the hated rules obliging ethnic Koreans to carry ID cards with fingerprints. Local governments are opening up administrative jobs to ethnic Koreans, and there are proposals to let them vote in local elections. Some Koreans have stopped using Japanese names to hide their identity.

Back in Korea, Kwon told supporters he hopes his release can contribute to bridging the gap. He contends he doesn't hate Japan. Says Kwon: "Japanese people told me through their letters that I did the right thing." His mother's death last year also helped soften his attitude. Park showed him her picture right after she died. Her eyes were open, a sign, many Koreans believe, that the soul has departed with unfinished business. She had expressed the wish to go back to Korea with her son. When he flew to Pusan, her hometown, Kwon carried her ashes in an urn, wrapped in a Korean flag. The two of them, he hopes, have finally come home.

With reporting by Stella Kim/Seoul and Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

This edition's table of contents
TIME Asia home



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COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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