Japan has placed under its protective custody dozens of people who have fled North Korea, including Japanese spouses of Koreans and former Korean residents of Japan, a senior Foreign Ministry official told the Diet on Monday.

Asked about reports of such clandestine activities that also involve China, Mitoji Yabunaka, the director general of the ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, told the House of Representatives Budget Committee “there have been dozens” of cases.

It is the first time a government official has formally acknowledged that Japan has protected such people.

Many people fleeing North Korea escape to China and wait for an opportunity to seek asylum at foreign diplomatic establishments. Yabunaka said that in many cases the Chinese government has “responded positively to requests for cooperation.” There have been reports of cases in which children of Japanese spouses of Koreans were secretly brought to Japan last summer with help from the government, and a North Korean agent who was formerly a resident of Japan similarly made his way back here in 1999.

Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi told the committee that Japanese spouses who have escaped from North Korea must be offered the same protection offered to Japanese nationals overseas, and that the government has been seeking cooperation from Beijing on this matter.

Government sources have suggested the people placed in protective custody are being secretly brought to Japan.

Under a “repatriation” program for Koreans residing in Japan, some 93,000 pro-Pyongyang Koreans and their Japanese spouses and children went to North Korea between 1959 and 1984.

Kawaguchi said the government cannot reveal how many Japanese have been placed under protective custody or when, citing the sensitive nature of the matter.

“For the Chinese government, the asylum seekers from North Korea are illegal entrants, and there also is the relationship between China and North Korea,” Kawaguchi said.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe suggested the government will have to consider enacting a law to stipulate how it would support the Japanese spouses and others who have fled North Korea.

“I am aware that it is debatable as to whether we should use the same program that we have for the abduction victims,” Abe said. “Generally speaking, we must seriously consider the matter, looking comprehensively into such factors as the safety of the individuals involved and humanitarian aspects.”

The government had legislation enacted last year to facilitate assistance, including financial support, for Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea. It also dealt with abductees’ offspring who hope to move to Japan.

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