OSAKA — The May 8 attempt by five North Korean family members to seek asylum at the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, northeastern China, was not the first time the consulate has dealt with North Koreans fleeing their country, according to a senior representative of an Osaka-based citizens’ group supporting such people.

“In the mid-1990s, the Rescue the North Korean People Urgent Action Network (RENK) verified three incidents in which North Korean families trying to flee to South Korea sought asylum at the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang,” said Lee Young Hwa, who is also an associate professor of economics at Kansai University.

“One woman in one of the three families had Japanese nationality. So she was able to go to Japan and her family eventually ended up in South Korea. But we don’t know what happened to the other two families,” said Lee, a North Korean national living in Osaka.

RENK, which extends financial and other assistance to North Koreans who have managed to flee the country and documents human rights abuses in North Korea, has long been critical of the Japanese government’s stand toward asylum seekers.

“Other countries, like Spain and Canada, have helped entire families escape North Korea. The United Nations has stated that families who are fleeing from a repressive government should be given assistance. But the Japanese government helps only those with Japanese nationality,” Lee said.

Family members of Japanese nationals are not helped, nor are resident Koreans in Japan who carry Korean passports, he added.

Based on the evidence presented in the Japanese and South Korean media so far, Lee said he believes there is a strong possibility that it is general Japanese government policy that when people from North Korea seek asylum in Japanese consulates in China, consular officials call the Chinese police and have them removed.

“It’s very likely that the Foreign Ministry has a manual that says North Korean asylum seekers are not to be helped unless they carry Japanese passports,” he said.

Recent developments in Tokyo-Pyongyang relations are also making acceptance of individual asylum seekers more complicated, Lee said, referring to the resumption of Japanese and North Korean Red Cross talks on “missing” Japanese nationals who Tokyo believes were kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s.

“There has been some progress in the negotiations,” Lee explained. “So Japan is afraid that accepting North Korean asylum seekers will adversely affect these negotiations.”

Yet it is the asylum policies of South Korea, not Japan, that Lee is most critical of.

“Despite the fact that there is a South Korean Consulate in Shenyang, the North Korean asylum seekers did not go there,” he said. “You would think that would be the most natural destination. Why did they, and past asylum seekers, not try to gain entrance to the South Korean consulates? Because they knew the South Korean government would kick them back out onto the street.

“The government of President Kim Dae Jung doesn’t want to start accepting North Korean refugees at its consulates out of fear of damaging fragile relations with North Korea,” he said. Seoul will only accept North Korean asylum seekers once they have arrived in South Korean territory, he added.

As for the fate of the five family members who attempted to enter the consulate in Shenyang, Lee said he expects the story will have a happy ending for the family, but expressed concern that the incident will lead to a crackdown by the Chinese and North Korean governments.

“I think the family will be sent to a third country and then to South Korea. But the Chinese and North Korean governments will redouble their efforts to hunt down North Korean refugees and those (like RENK) who assist them,” Lee said.

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