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Four North Koreans — a married couple and their two adult sons — were spotted in a small boat off Fukaura port in Aomori Prefecture last Saturday and are now in custody. They arrived in a 7.3-meter-long open wooden boat equipped with an old outboard engine. They say they left a port near the northeastern city of Chongjin on May 27. This means that they traveled some 800 km by sea. They say life was so difficult that they were lucky to eat bread every second day. They also say that North Korea’s incompetent leader is causing society to regress and that there is no freedom in the country.

They have expressed the hope of being sent to South Korea. The government regards them as defectors from North Korea who fled the country due to poverty. It has made clear that it will act in accordance with a 2006 law, which calls on the government to protect and support defectors from North Korea as well as to do its utmost to resolve the problem of the past abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents. This appears to be a reasonable response on the part of the government.

Since South Korea has expressed its willingness to accept the four, they will eventually go to the country. But it may take some time before that happens. Investigators must learn more about the four. They had poison with them, and the younger son was found to be in possession of a stimulant drug. All four had wristwatches, usually beyond the reach of poor North Koreans. The boat they arrived in had diesel oil, which is said to be difficult to obtain in North Korea.

Their arrival poses a bigger question: Is Japan prepared to eventually cope with a possible large influx of defectors from North Korea? The serious food shortage in North Korea has increased pressure on people. Last year a record 2,000-plus defectors from the North arrived in South Korea. The accumulated total now tops 10,000. Some future defectors may want to settle in Japan rather than in South Korea. The latest incident also shows that the Japan Coast Guard needs to strengthen their watch against suspicious vessels approaching the Japanese coasts.

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