Japan and China have been locked in a diplomatic row over an incident May 8 in which Chinese police guards seized and removed five North Korean asylum seekers from the compound of the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, northeastern China. On Wednesday, however, it appeared that concerns over the fate of those North Koreans were being allayed because Tokyo and Beijing were trying to strike a compromise on a plan to send the asylum-seekers to the destination of their choice via a third country.

There is no question that Chinese authorities violated Japanese sovereignty. Unauthorized entry by host-nation agents into a foreign diplomatic mission is a violation of international law. It is also clear, however, that Japanese diplomats lacked a proper sense of sovereignty and a clear commitment to refugee protection, thus allowing Chinese police to arrest the North Korean defectors. And Tokyo showed itself to be ill-prepared for the possible diplomatic and security consequences of a looming refugee crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

Japan had rightly demanded the immediate release of all five North Koreans — two men, two women and a small child. But China spurned the demand, saying that the Chinese guards had been given permission to enter. That claim was flatly rejected by Tokyo.

That Chinese police trespassed on consulate grounds is evident from a video shot by members of the South Korean media. It shows three officers wrestling two screaming women, one of them carrying a child, to the ground just inside an open gate and dragging them outside it. The two men who rushed to the visa application section, who were not shown in the video, were also taken away.

Both Japan and China are signatories to the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The 1961 treaty prohibits agents of a receiving state to enter any foreign diplomatic mission without its consent. It is difficult not to think that the Chinese guards were unaware of the inviolability of foreign consulates and embassies. There is no denying the fact that, intentionally or not, they violated this basic principle.

Beijing has justified the police action as part of its efforts to prevent terrorist acts, saying it did not undermine Japan’s “material interests.” That is nonsense. It is unimaginable that the defectors would have posed any terrorist threat to consular staff. Even if preventive action was needed, it could have been taken outside the mission.

The video shows not only the cruelty of the Chinese police, but also the passivity of Japanese diplomats at the scene, who did nothing to help the asylum seekers or to stop the intruders. The impression is that they were not well aware of the gravity of the situation. At stake was the fate of the asylum seekers, not just the sovereignty of Japan. The Japanese Foreign Ministry cannot escape criticism for effectively turning a blind eye to the Chinese action.

The inertia on the part of consular officials and their superiors seemed to reflect Japan’s relatively cool attitude toward refugees in general. From 1981, when Japan joined the Geneva Refugee Convention, to 2001, this nation took in just 291 refugees, not including more than 10,000 persons from Indochina who were treated as a “special quota.” The two North Korean men who reached the visa section would have been duly recognized as refugees had the consulate been able to interview them.

In 2001, a record 583 North Koreans defected to South Korea. In the first quarter of this year alone about 300 fled the impoverished communist state. Reportedly there is an organized effort to help defectors. In March, a group headed by a German doctor arranged for 25 North Koreans to escape to South Korea through the Spanish Embassy in Beijing. The aborted visit to the Japanese consulate is said to have been planned by a South Korean human rights group.

These people represent only a fraction of the massive refugee exodus from North Korea. There are a great many North Korean refugees in China waiting for a chance to live in South Korea or elsewhere. Their estimated numbers vary widely, the highest being 300,000.

North Korea appears ready to restart a dialogue with Japan and the U.S. — an indication that U.S. President George W. Bush’s hardline policy toward Pyongyang is beginning to pay off. With U.S. and South Korean human rights groups stepping up efforts to promote defections, however, the refugee problem could reach crisis proportions, posing serious threats to stability on the Korean Peninsula. The latest diplomatic row has revealed Japan’s lack of preparedness for such a possibility. The nation faces a new challenge in its diplomatic and security policy toward this region of the world.

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