TOKYO — Gambling at pachinko was a lot more fun for Reiko Kuzuhara until she began to wonder whether maybe her losses were helping North Korea build nuclear weapons.
Pachinko, a form of pinball deeply loved in Japan, is an industry largely run by ethnic Koreans, and experts have long believed the revenue to be a vital source of hard currency for the impoverished regime in North Korea.
Now, as Kim Jong Il's nuclear weapons program gathers pace, Japan's attitude is hardening, and that includes shutting out the ferry on which money is believed to be hand-carried from Japan to North Korea.
"I really don't like that the money I spend could be helping them with those sorts of things," said Kuzuhara, 55, who works in the printing industry and was interviewed on a Tokyo street near several pachinko parlors. "It's making me think twice and cut back on how often I play."
The pachinko connection is facing increased scrutiny as tensions rise after North Korea's ballistic missile tests in July and its first test of a nuclear device Oct. 9.
Pachinko is an upright pinball game played at tens of thousands of parlors across the country. Success is measured in little steel payoff balls, which can be exchanged for cash or other prizes.
The machines rake in more than $200 billion a year, some of which finds its way to North Korea. Official figures put the total of remittances from sources in Japan at $25.5 million, but the bookkeeping is murky and some think the sum is closer to $850 million a year. No one knows how much of it comes directly from pachinko.
"It's very difficult to say how much cash is actually going from Japan to the North," said Toshio Miyatsuka, a North Korea specialist at Yamanashi Gakuin University in central Japan who has written a book about the pachinko industry.
"But it does seem certain that a lot of it is winding up in the hands of the North Korean government and military, and that includes money earned from drugs and pachinko," he added.
The Finance Ministry requires sums going to North Korea to be reported only if they top $2.55 million in wire transfers or $85,120 in hand-delivered cash.
Japanese government records show that of $25.5 million sent to North Korea during the 2005 fiscal year, more than 90% was hand-delivered.
The banning of the Mangyongbong-92 ferry from Japanese ports in July has almost certainly put a crimp in the cash flow.
Officials, however, say it's hard to track money delivered through third countries, in person or through bank accounts.