North Korea’s Pachinko Missiles

TOKYO – Three scenes are often the subject of photographs taken by foreign tourists visiting Japan. One is a forest of utility poles; another is cars riding a gondola in mechanical parking areas. The third is pachinko.

Pachinko is a kind of pinball game with betting, and the people lined up facing the vertically arranged machines look like they are working in a factory. According to one report (in Japanese), there are 11.5 million pachinko enthusiasts, and the market is valued at ¥24.5 trillion – almost double the carmaker Toyota’s sales last year.

For foreigners, pachinko is a gaudy scene – the players, including professionals who make a living from it, seem glued to their spots – and thus an understandably irresistible photo opportunity. But, for Japan, there is a darker side to the fun and games.

Many of the owners of Japan’s 11,000 pachinko halls are from the Korean Peninsula, and some with relations to North Korea have sent substantial sums of money back home for many years. Such “contributors” to the wellbeing of the North Korean economy are recognized by the regime in Pyongyang according to the extent of their support, and are given awards and sometimes publicly recognized as patriots. And on national days, such as the birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, these expats are almost forced to contribute; indeed, they can be assigned to raise sums big enough to cover the cost of food distributed to North Koreans on such occasions.