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It’s time Japan woke up to refugee problem

by Philip Brasor

The Foreign Ministry’s lack of a coherent policy with regard to North Korea was obvious back in autumn, when public opinion forced the government to renege on its promise to Pyongyang that the five Japanese abductees would return to the communist nation after a two-week visit to Japan. The five are now permanently repatriated, and the Japanese government’s decades-long avoidance of a consistent stance toward North Korea is now coming back to haunt it.

The ministry’s problems have less to do with Japan’s wallflower status in the current diplomatic dance between the United States, South Korea and North Korea than it does with the ever-widening refugee crisis.

As a result, the complicated, and as yet unresolved, case of the “Japanese wife” who escaped from North Korea and is currently in the hands of the Chinese authorities has occasioned a great deal of conflicting media coverage. Two weeks ago, the magazine Shukan Shincho and TV Asahi blasted the Foreign Ministry for effectively ignoring the woman, a Japanese national who fled North Korea late last year. Shincho’s headline called the ministry “cold-hearted” while “News Station” announcer Hiroshi Kume stated that TV Asahi would not rest until the government did something about the woman’s plight.

The magazine Shukan Bunshun then blasted the two news organizations for bringing the woman to the attention of the Chinese authorities and, by extension, to North Korea. Shincho, who ran an exclusive interview with the woman and printed her Japanese name, brushed aside the criticism. TV Asahi did not respond, but it also hasn’t complained any more about the Foreign Ministry’s neglect.

The woman was brought out of North Korea by a man who himself had escaped the country and is now settled in South Korea. He had sneaked back into the North to retrieve relatives, but couldn’t find them. He happened upon the 64-year-old Japanese woman, who had married a Korean man in Japan and moved to North Korea when she was 22. He smuggled her out.

Once she was in a safe house in China, he went to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul with the woman’s papers and a letter. He asked for money but, according to Shincho, the Japanese Embassy refused. Based on a source in the Foreign Ministry, Asahi Shimbun reported that the man and an accomplice had already received money from the woman’s family in Japan but wanted more from the government.

Shincho, who interviewed the woman in China along with other reporters, took her letter to Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi. TV Asahi asked Kawaguchi what the ministry planned to do about her and the foreign minister replied that she was aware of the woman’s situation but could not comment.

According to NGOs, the Japanese government has surreptitiously helped more than 20 North Korean refugees “return to Japan” over the past decade or so. They do it secretly for two reasons: One, they don’t want to upset China, which has a pact with North Korea to return any defectors; and two, they don’t want to encourage a flood of refugees coming to Japan.

In the end, it was the Japanese government who informed the Chinese authorities of the woman’s whereabouts on the premise that the two Korean men had “kidnapped” her and were demanding a ransom. She and the two men were picked up Jan. 15 and are now being detained in China. Shincho claims that the ministry is trying to “save face,” not only its own, but China’s too. In its latest issue, the magazine says that the Foreign Ministry doesn’t want to deal with any defectors, Japanese-born or otherwise, and does so only when there is no danger of drawing attention to the fact.

Shincho and the Mainichi Shimbun have quoted one NGO which said that another Japanese wife contacted a Japanese consulate in China back in the ’90s, but that efforts to help her “failed” and she was sent back to North Korea. On the other hand, when the most famous defector, Kensho Aoyama (a pseudonym), called the Japanese Embassy in China to ask for assistance, he was told there was no “route” for defectors; that is, until he said he had information about North Korea’s nuclear program.

No Japanese media reported those incidents at the time, and the few defectors who do make it to Japan are instructed by the Foreign Ministry not to tell anyone. The coverage of the current “Japanese wife,” as contradictory as some of it is, has forced the government to act, especially since Shincho published her name. A deal may very well have already been cut for the woman’s repatriation to Japan.

Behind all this is an event that has generally gone unremarked on for the past 40 years. In the 60s, about 96,000 people left Japan for North Korea. Some, like the woman in question, were Japanese married to Koreans. Others sincerely believed in Kim Il Song’s socialist experiment and wanted to help build “a new utopia.” And then there were Koreans who believed anywhere was better than Japan, where they suffered discrimination. The Pyongyang-affiliated Korean residents organization at the time pledged that anyone could return to Japan for a visit. No one did, but obviously not because they didn’t want to. Then as now, the Japanese government had no policy with regard to these people, because they had chosen to leave.

The media’s focus on the “Japanese wife” should force the government to clarify its position vis-a-vis Japanese nationals and “quasi-Japanese” (the government term for ethnic Koreans born in Japan) in North Korea, because there will certainly be more of them trying to escape in the future. A more significant development would be a coherent policy on all refugees, but maybe that’s hoping for too much.