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The high-profile case of a Japanese woman who returned to Japan on Wednesday after fleeing North Korea has rekindled debate over the government’s lack of adequate support measures for others in similar circumstances, as well as its reluctance to accept refugees.

The woman, who arrived in Tokyo, married a North Korean and moved to North Korea in 1959 along with her husband under a repatriation program. She fled to China in November and sought refuge in Japan via a group of supporters.

While the government acknowledged earlier this week that dozens of people have been placed under protective custody after fleeing North Korea, many experts say that the real problems begin after these people arrive in Japan.

Kenkichi Nakadaira, leader of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental organization that supports refugees from North Korea, urged the government to take legislative action to provide financial and other support to asylum seekers.

“Foreign Ministry officials have been doing their utmost to help (North Korean refugees) enter Japan,” Nakadaira said. “But officials refuse to provide further support once they do get here.”

These asylum seekers often have a hard time settling in Japan, especially because many do not speak Japanese and most want to hide the fact that they fled North Korea, he said.

Nakadaira said the government should provide Japanese language lessons and job training programs in addition to financial support to start a new life in the country.

Since its foundation in 1998, Nakadaira said his group has helped 24 refugees of several nationalities, including Japanese, to seek asylum in Japan and eventually settle down here.

On Monday, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe indicated that the government should consider drafting legislation to support Japanese and Koreans with permanent residency who flee North Korea.

But government officials remain skeptical of such legislation on the grounds that it could set a precedent.

“Unlike Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea, these people went to the North of their own will,” said a senior government official who asked not to be named. “If the government supports them, there would be debate that we should provide similar support to Japanese who once settled in South America and came back.”

The woman who returned Wednesday is eligible for welfare assistance such as food and housing under current laws. However, new legislation is necessary for further support.

But while the Foreign Ministry’s division for the protection of Japanese nationals overseas says that the government will grant protective custody to Japanese as well as Koreans who have permanent Japanese residency on humanitarian grounds, many pundits say that Japan may soon see a flood of asylum seekers from North Korea.

This in turn could affect Japan’s refugee policy. In 2001, the Justice Ministry granted refugee status to 26 people — an unusually low figure among industrialized countries.

There are three types of asylum seekers who flee North Korea and try to enter to Japan: those with Japanese nationality, ethnic Koreans with permanent residency in Japan, and others.

Although the government is expected to urge the third category of asylum seekers to seek refugee status, a policy review may become necessary if they come en masse.

The 1951 Convention on Status of Refugees, which Japan ratified in 1982, obliges signatories to protect asylum seekers who fear persecution in their home countries.

But under Japan’s current policy, in most cases, asylum seekers from North Korea who fled due to economic difficulties are not granted the status, as they would not be seen as fleeing persecution, pundits say.

But Nakadaira said North Korean refugees would be severely punished for treason just by crossing the North Korean border. He said Japan should offer protection regardless of nationality.

“If they are repatriated, they will face heavy penalties,” he said. “In that sense, they are political asylum seekers.”

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