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HONOLULU — Japan is indulging in righteous indignation over the incident involving North Koreans who tried to take refuge in the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China, earlier this month. Targets of the mounting fury include the Chinese police, the consular staff and, by extension, the entire Japanese Foreign Ministry. The passions aroused by this episode must not be allowed to overshadow the real issue: the fate of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of North Koreans in China who are desperate to escape the hunger, poverty and tyranny of their home country. They are the real victims and, ironically, the international attention they have won may only make their situation worse.

The key facts in the incident are pretty clear. Five North Koreans entered the Japanese consulate in Shenyang seeking refuge and eventual passage to a third country, reportedly the United States. Three of the refugees, two women and a small child, were seized by Chinese police inside the gate of the compound, and dragged kicking and screaming from the premises. Two men reached the visa application section of the consulate, where they sat for 10 minutes before being forcibly removed by Chinese police.

Japan claims that the unauthorized entry of the police onto the consulate grounds violates the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Affairs. The Chinese government says the individuals were removed to protect the consulate “under the specter of the international fight against terrorism.” It also claims that Japanese officials agreed to have the North Koreans taken away, an allegation that Tokyo denies.

The anger in Japan has been compounded by the failure of the consular staff to be sufficiently zealous in protecting the country’s territory — the consulate — and their bumbling response to the intrusion. A stream of revelations has suggested that the Foreign Ministry was unprepared for the asylum bid, despite a spate of similar incidents in recent months, and has reinforced the argument that the ministry is more concerned with damage control than ascertaining what actually happened.

The entire episode was caught on videotape by South Korean media, which had been tipped off by nongovernmental organizations that organized the asylum bid. The tape, shown repeatedly on Japanese television, has inflamed public opinion. Tackling and dragging a woman out of the consular grounds, in front of a crying young child, has put the lie to Chinese claims that it feared a possible terrorist act. Pictures of a consular official meekly returning a Chinese policeman’s hat have politicians up in arms about the lack of patriotism shown by the staff. The entire episode has revealed the Foreign Ministry was once again unprepared for a predictable contingency.

The videotape also shows that the asylum bid was no random act. Its existence is proof that the escape was planned in advance, as was the attempt by three North Korean men to enter the U.S. consulate in Shenyang (they have since departed for South Korea), and a similar act by two more North Korean men at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. In March, 25 North Koreans took refuge in the Spanish Embassy in Beijing to win passage overseas.

All of these acts are being assisted and facilitated by NGOs in an attempt to focus international attention on the plight of the North Korean people. Organizers say that they will step up their efforts in the runup to the World Cup soccer tournament that opens later this month.

It is estimated that there are 150,000 to 300,000 North Koreans, or more than 1 percent of the country’s population, in China. They have fled their country to escape desperation and extreme poverty. Flight is not without risk: The North Korean penal code lists defection or attempted defection as a capital crime. Article 47 of the 1987 North Korean Criminal Code states that a defector who is returned to North Korea “shall be committed to a reform institution for not less than seven years. In cases where the person commits an extremely grave concern, he or she shall be given the death penalty.” (Forcible return to North Korea, where as many as 2 million people may have died of starvation, is punishment enough.) Their families also face retribution and possible imprisonment.

The international spotlight that has been focused on North Korean refugees in China has not helped them. Rather than setting up support networks or allowing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in to monitor the situation (which is a Chinese obligation as a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees), Beijing has cracked down. Chinese and North Korean police have been rounding up and returning many of the North Koreans who are trying to survive in China.

Previously, Chinese authorities largely turned a blind eye to these refugees (although some were returned). Recognition of the grim reality of life in North Korea encouraged them to do so. Beijing also reached a modus vivendi with NGOs that kept a low profile and worked quietly to help the refugees and, in several cases, to help them find asylum in other countries. The recent high-profile escape attempts have forced the Chinese to shut down this underground railroad.

The anger that has been aroused in Japan has focused on China and the Foreign Ministry for its response to the situation. The real scandal, however, is the policy that Tokyo has pursued in handling refugees. Last year, 353 individuals sought asylum in Japan and less than two dozen were given it. Reportedly, hours before the intrusion in Shenyang, the Japanese ambassador in Beijing told his staff that any North Koreans who turned up seeking asylum were to be turned away to avoid “difficulties.”

This long-standing policy is an embarrassment. It mocks Japan’s declared intention to aid the disadvantaged and undermines its claim to play a leading role in the region. A willingness to help the poor only when they keep their distance is just another form of xenophobia. The readiness to subordinate the interests of the most desperate individuals to smooth state-to-state relations — between Tokyo and Beijing, or Tokyo and Pyongyang — is a crude form of power politics. The North Koreans who have been forced to flee their own country and who become pawns in international politics in the process are the real victims in this sad episode. Forgetting that fact only compounds the tragedy.

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