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North Korea is creating a new headache for the Japanese government: the plight of North Korean residents and their Japanese spouses who have now returned secretly to Japan from that impoverished communist state via China. The problem came to the fore last month when a Japanese woman who had gone to the North with her Korean husband under a post-World War II repatriation program returned home openly under the media spotlight.

According to the Foreign Ministry, scores of North Korean residents who formerly lived in Japan have resettled here with their Japanese wives under covert arrangements. The number of such returnees is expected to rise given the deepening economic crisis in North Korea. The government should give them as much support as it can, particularly if they have Japanese nationality.

The case-by-case approach of the past will not suffice. Much remains to be done — for example, setting transparent rules for the rescue and receiving of returnees and providing support for their living in Japan. To qualify for assistance, however, some of them may have to be recognized as refugees. The government should work out a comprehensive relief program in consultation with China, South Korea and international organizations.

The woman who returned in late January for the first time in 44 years was a former Tokyo resident. She sneaked into China last autumn with the help of an intermediary group. But her solo escape hit a snag when the group requested cash from the Japanese government in exchange for her handover. Things became more difficult when Chinese authorities detained the woman. That prompted Tokyo to disclose some of the facts about her.

Until then the government had maintained confidentiality about returnees, partly out of concern for the safety of their families left in North Korea and partly in deference to China, which regards escapees from North Korea as illegal entrants. However, Beijing has acquiesced in the transit entry of former Korean residents and their Japanese spouses, accommodating Tokyo’s request for humanitarian consideration. Nongovernmental organizations are said to have been helpful in arranging their exits.

It is problematic, however, that China should treat all escapees as illegal entrants. Since it is a signatory to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, China is obligated to protect refugees seeking political asylum. Last month Chinese authorities detained nearly 60 people seeking eventual asylum in Japan. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had proposed to interview them for refugee identification, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry rejected the offer, saying they were not refugees because they had entered China illegally for economic reasons.

The Chinese position is based on a Beijing-Pyongyang agreement that says people entering China across the Chinese-Korean border without permission should be deported home. According to NGO officials, Korean residents who formerly resided in Japan and their Japanese wives face particularly tough crackdowns when they flee to China.

Many of those who went to North Korea under the repatriation program have since suffered great hardships, as dramatized by the suffering of the woman who returned in late January. From 1959 to 1984 a total of 93,340 people, including about 1,800 Japanese wives, chose to live in that country, which was portrayed at the time as a “paradise on Earth.”

There is now talk that Japan should create special legislation to help these returnees — legislation similar to the current measure for those who have rejoined their families here after being kidnapped by North Korean agents during the Cold War. A distinction must be made, however, between those who went to the North of their own accord and those who were taken there against their will. In other words, it is not reasonable to treat returning refugees in the same way as those abducted from Japan.

To begin with, the government should do what it can, including offering subsistence support and vocational training. Eligibility standards need to be applied flexibly. Former Korean residents with close ties to Japan should be able to receive almost the same treatment as Japanese nationals. For that, the rigid standards of refugee status need to be relaxed.

A bill now under consideration aims to extend the maximum period of refugee application to six months from the present 60 days. Grievance and review systems also need improving. The important thing is to tackle the refugee problem in the broader context of Japan’s international contributions — not only from the narrower standpoint of protecting Japanese nationals.

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