Japan temple wins bids on N.Korea 'embassy'

A Buddhist temple on Tuesday won an auction for North Korea's de facto embassy in Japan, after it was seized by authorities for unpaid debts, the religious body said.

The Saifukuji temple in southwestern Kagoshima topped the bidding, making an offer of 4.52 billion yen ($48 million) in the forced auction, one of the temple's secretaries told AFP.

There had been speculation that any new owner could turf out the North Koreans, but temple chief, priest Ekan Ikeguchi, said the function of the building would not change.

"We will keep the building this way, and make it a place to promote harmony among Asia's different ethnic groups, including North Korea," he said.

According to the temple's website, Ikeguchi has visited North Korea several times in the past.

The property -- a 2,390-square-metre (25,725-square-feet) plot and a 10-storey building in central Tokyo, according to Jiji Press -- has been used as the headquarters of Chongryon, the organisation that represents North Korean interests in Japan in the absence of diplomatic ties.

A Chongryon official confirmed that there was no immediate change on the horizon.

"The function of our headquarters will be maintained for the time being, at least. We feel relieved," the official said, according to Kyodo News.

Japan's government debt collection body, the Resolution and Collection Corporation (RCC), seized the property and began the auction in lieu of what the body owed.

The RCC had demanded repayment of 62.7 billion yen from the Korean organisation and sought to impound property as collateral.

The headquarters had been registered under a different name, but the Supreme Court ruled last year that the building is in practice controlled by Chongryon and should be considered as its property, ordering its seizure to pay off debts.

The sale is expected to be finalised on Friday once the Tokyo District Court gives the green light to the temple's purchase, Jiji said.

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans live in Japan, mostly a legacy of those who emigrated or were forced to move to Japan during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

About 10 percent are believed to be affiliated with Chongryon, which charges that the community is persecuted by authorities and harassed by right-wing activists.

The Tokyo metropolitan government, headed by nationalist then-governor Shintaro Ishihara, in 2003 suspended a tax break which Chongryon enjoyed because of the buildings's quasi-diplomatic status.