CAMBRIDGE, England — Now that a little time has gone by, and peoples’ attention is distracted by the World Cup, it is time for a little quiet thinking about the implications of the Shenyang incident. This was the incident in which Chinese police forcibly removed five North Koreans from the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang.
There are two aspects of the incident that need thinking about. First, there is the humanitarian issue concerning the treatment of the people seeking asylum in the consulate. Second, there is the diplomatic issue concerning the entry of the Chinese guards onto Japanese “territory” in the consulate.
Looking at the humanitarian issue first, we need some background. For several years now, thousands of North Koreans have been fleeing their country for political and economic reasons. Almost all cross the border into China on their way out of North Korea, entering an area inhabited by ethnic Koreans who are sympathetic to their plight. For the most part, their fellow Koreans shelter them. It is generally believed that there are now as many as 300,000 North Korean refugees now living illegally in northeast China.
For the most part the refugees are simply happy to have escaped from North Korea and as long as they are sheltered they are content to stay in northeast China in the sympathetic Korean community. Although the Chinese government has an agreement with the Pyongyang government that it will return any refugees that it “finds,” for the most part it turns a blind eye to their presence. Of course, if refugees cause trouble or for some other reason come to the attention of the authorities, then they are deported. And there is always the problem of career-minded officers, seeking promotion, who might actively seek out North Korean refugees for deportation.
But for various reasons, not all the refugees want to stay in China. Maybe they have relatives in South Korea or do not want to live in a communist regime. For several years now these refugees have quietly moved along a well-organized escape route that eventually takes them to Seoul. Two hundred or so people are thought to reach Seoul each year in this way. Again, the Chinese government is aware of this activity and turns a blind eye as long as no Chinese laws are broken or political trouble caused.
That has all changed now. The undemocratic and increasingly worrying activities of nongovernmental organizations has focused attention on the North Korean refugee issue. For reasons of their own, a group of NGOs, apparently including at least one based in Japan and some in South Korea, have decided to draw international media attention to the movement of refugees out of North Korea.
It is not clear what they, and German human rights activist Nobert Vollersten, who is working with, or for, them, hoped to achieve. For several weeks they engineered the movement of several groups of refugees who had been living in China for some time into foreign embassies and consulates in China. They made sure that the media were informed in advance and were present when the refugees entered the embassy and consulate premises. They got the international media attention they sought, but I doubt if they increased the flow of refugees from North Korea to South Korea. In all probability they have reduced it as China will now want to tighten up on border movements and on the activities of those people facilitating the movement of the refugees rather than risk increased adverse publicity in the international media.
The world already knew that North Korea is not a very pleasant place and that the Chinese government is not always the best protector of human rights as understood in the West. So, on balance, the impact of the attention-seeking NGOs has in this instance, as is often the case, been negative.
The pressure the Japanese government brought to bear on the Chinese government to arrange for the movement of the Shenyang refugees out of China was highly hypocritical. The Japanese government’s record on providing safe havens for refugees is among the worst in the world. Note that at no time did it offer to welcome the Shenyang or any other North Korean refugees (or any refugees from anywhere for that matter) to Japan.
We also have to raise an eyebrow at the Japanese government’s reaction to the entry of the Chinese guards into its Shenyang consulate. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took the lead in whipping opinion in the government and among the Japanese people at large into a nationalistic frenzy. Why? Sure the video pictures of the scenes at the consulate were upsetting and they did show Chinese guards manhandling the refugees out of the consulate. However, rather than jingoistic rabble-rousing, Koizumi should have, while expressing his concern, engaged in quiet diplomacy to find out what really happened.
It is quiet clear, even from the video, that the Chinese guards entered the consulate with either the permission or the acquiescence of the Japanese staff. No attempt was made to stop the guards manhandling the two women and child who entered the gate; the Japanese official standing by handed back to the Chinese guards their hats, which had been knocked off in the scuffle. And no attempt was made to stop the guards fetching the two men who had made it into the visa office to present their appeal for asylum.
We now know that the consulate staff were under instructions, from the Japanese Embassy in Beijing or more likely from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo via the Beijing Embassy, to prevent North Korean refugees from entering Japanese diplomatic space. Which is why they stood by and watched while the refugees were being removed; they had requested the removal.
The word hypocrisy springs to mind again when we remember that in 1998 Japanese police rushed into the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, without permission, to catch and remove an intruder. In demanding an apology from the Chinese government for the Shenyang incident, Koizumi seems to have forgotten this incident, as well as the incident in the early 1980s when Japanese police entered, illegally, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to try, unsuccessfully, to drag out a North Korean defector.
How to handle the decline and eventual inevitable collapse of the North Korean state is one of the most worrying problems faced by the world community, especially by neighboring countries in northeast Asia, including Russia. The Japanese government’s handling of the Shenyang incident, which reminded many Chinese of the Mukden and Marco Polo bridge incidents, was not the best way to go forward. The Chinese government handled it much more wisely and diplomatically.
The losers in this incident are the North Korean people, whose opportunities for escape will now be more limited. And the Japanese government has lost face as its foreign policy skills have once again been brought into question.
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