At long last, the Shenyang saga of the five North Korean asylum seekers came to an end on Wednesday when they were allowed to leave China for South Korea via the Philippines. On May 8, the defectors were seized by Chinese police guards as they rushed into the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, northeastern China. The family arrived in Seoul on Thursday.

Their safe arrival in South Korea, following two weeks of police detention, is welcome. It was the result of a humanitarian decision that averted the worst: deportation to North Korea. Had they been sent back home, they certainly would have received harsh treatment from North Korean authorities.

For the Japanese government, however, the Shenyang incident has opened a Pandora’s box. It has revealed, among other problems, a lack of capacity for crisis management and a poor sense of human rights. Tokyo must thoroughly examine exactly what has happened and take the necessary steps to prevent similar occurrences. It must also review its policy toward asylum seekers and refugees.

Beyond that, there is a vital question that has yet to be clearly answered: Did Japan give its consent, as China claims it did, to the police entry into the consulate and to the seizure of the North Koreans? This is a question of sovereignty that, unless handled wisely, could inflame nationalist sentiments in the two countries.

Japan has asserted that such permission was not given and that the police action was, therefore, a violation of the Vienna convention stipulating the inviolability of diplomatic missions. So the government demanded a Chinese apology and the handover of the North Korean asylum seekers.

On the other hand, China has maintained that it obtained Japanese permission and has refused to offer an apology and turn over the defectors. How to treat them, Beijing has contended, is a question that should be addressed within the framework of Chinese sovereignty.

However, the two sides reached basic agreement that, from the humanitarian point of view, the impasse should be broken as soon as possible. Speaking at a Diet committee on Wednesday, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reiterated the need for a prompt settlement giving top priority to the North Koreans’ request for asylum.

For China, avoiding deportation to North Korea, a move that would have provoked international criticism, was probably the only viable option. Although Beijing said the decision reflected its own judgment, there is reason to believe that it also took into account the Japanese position in favor of asylum as well as international opinion.

In calling for a prompt humanitarian settlement, however, Japan set aside the sovereignty issue — the dispute over whether the police guards entered the consulate with Japanese permission. In the absence of conclusive evidence, the nation had no other realistic choice. Had it insisted on this issue, the fate of the five North Koreans would have remained unsettled for an extended period.

Nevertheless, Japan’s response to the incident raised more questions than it answered. Although the video footage leaves little doubt that the Chinese guards intruded into the consulate compound, it shows that consular officials did almost nothing to stop the police entry and the seizure of the asylum seekers.

The postmortem is still incomplete, but it points to a negative conclusion: Consular officials, instead of demanding the immediate handover of the asylum seekers, allowed the armed police to enter the consulate premises and take away the defectors. But blaming only those officials is not the answer. The government itself must take the blame, for at the root of the officials’ slow response is its halfhearted policy toward asylum seekers and refugees in general.

During a parliamentary exchange on foreign affairs, Prime Minister Koizumi said the government will review its refugee policy. Indeed, a wholesale review is in order. The refugee problem poses a daunting challenge to the world, Japan included. The government must squarely address this issue without allowing it to become a political or diplomatic football.

For Japan, which is traditionally cool toward immigrants and refugees, the problem touches the nature of its society. The big question is, how should the nation build an open society at a time when national borders continue to fall? And how should it deal with an increasing exodus of refugees from North Korea?

Addressing these and other questions of refugee relief is the most important issue raised by the Shenyang fiasco. Unfortunately, the incident has spread an image of Japan as a refugee-shy nation. It is also a blessing in disguise, giving this nation the opportunity to come up with a positive refugee policy.

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