Shock waves rocked Japan recently when four North Korean defectors
sailed into Funaura port in Aomori Prefecture (northeastern Japan)
in a seven-meter wooden boat whose top speed was just 10 knots
. The arrival of the four family members on Japanese shores from
Chongjin, 850 km away, after ten days at sea, was nothing short
Fears of an Influx
Until now, discussions about North Korean human rights issues
in Japan have always centered on the abduction of Japanese nationals
by North Korea. Now, however, the issue of North Korean refugees
has seized the spotlight.
This incident has awakened fears that there may be waves of
North Koreans fleeing their country. Before this, the usual route
for defectors was by land through China and on through a third
country such as Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, or
Thailand, to their eventual destination of South Korea, Japan,
or the United States. But these defectors entered Japan directly
by sea. So unexpected was this, that the media featured it extensively,
turning it into a major event.
No System in Place
The local police and government are seldom privy to national
policy, so when special cases arise, they typically must wait
for instructions from Tokyo. A local newspaper reporter described
his frustration as reporters from faraway Tokyo scooped the story,
simply because the local Aomori prefectural police had no information
The idea of a flood of North Korean refugees by sea first surfaced
four to five years ago. At that time, officials from each ministry
and the Prime Minister's office met to discuss the issue. But
the way the present case was handled demonstrates that no formal
plan was ever drawn up.
Plans Never Discussed with Tokyo
Refugees arriving by sea fall primarily under the jurisdiction
of the Japan Coast Guard.
Then, when they set foot on land, they become the responsibility
of the Immigration authorities, and following that, the police.
This fragmented system clearly illustrates the lack of readiness
of the Coast Guard and the nation as a whole to receive refugees.
Dealing with North Korean defectors is the responsibility of
the local immigration bureau. Local governments act only at the
behest of Tokyo. Thus, there has never been any real discussion
with the central government regarding the treatment of defectors
from the North.
In the Aomori case, the four expressed their desire to go to
South Korea as soon as they set foot on Japanese soil. By an
interesting coincidence, a foreign ministers' conference was
being held in South Korea at the time of their arrival; the South
Korean foreign minister quickly asserted his country's intention
to accept the defectors, after which the case was handled promptly.
What if They Had Wanted to Settle in Japan?
The question arises: what if the defectors had stated a desire
to settle in Japan?
The Japanese government is obliged to accept defectors into
the country, and to treat them in a humanitarian way. Once they
are granted refugee status, a facility to hold them would become
necessary. In addition, refugees wishing to settle in Japan need
the basic skills required to function in Japanese society, such
as Japanese-language education, and other training that would
enable them to make a living.
There is, however, no facility to house refugees from the North.
Apart from North Korean agents or criminals, the police at the
point of landing do not have the ability to hold them.
In such cases, will the immigration authorities house defectors?
At present, the immigration bureau detains those who have violated
immigration law and are awaiting deportation. The facilities
in use are not intended as a stepping-stone to integration into
What about the prefectural and municipal governments? These
governments also have no provisions for dealing with defectors.
Ultimately, in addition to the lack of sufficient laws, defectors
face having to deal with the Coast Guard, the police, the immigration
bureau, as well as local governments.
The four defectors in this case stated that their intention
was never to land in Japan.
According to Kazuhito Araki of the Investigation Commission
on Missing Japanese Probably Kidnapped to North Korea (COMJAN),
there have been more than 60 unmanned boats, or boats containing
human corpses, from North Korea landing on the west coast of
Japan (in Shimane, Tottori, Kyoto, Ishikawa, Fukui, Niigata,
Akita, Aomori, and Hokkaido prefectures).
Even though the occupants of these boats managed to evade the
North Korean Coast Guard, unfortunately they were not successful
in landing in Japan as they had intended.
Possibility of Transportation "Business"
Although the sea route is fraught with dangers and hardships
not found on the land route, there is a strong possibility that
people will find innovative ways to overcome these dangers. With
the erosion of North Korea's ability to govern itself and the
resulting confusion, the possibility of the North Korean maritime
security authorities conducting a human-transportation business
cannot be ruled out. If this were to happen, the intake of North
Korean refugees, as well as the mechanisms to handle them, would
face a drastic need for expansion.
According to various sources, the number of those returning
to Japan from North Korea to date is over 130. However, that
figure was as of mid-2006. At present, there are close to 200
defectors living in hiding in Japan, and that number will only
increase. (Note: many defectors still have relatives in North
Korea and wish to remain anonymous to protect family members.)
A Very Cool Reception
The Japanese government currently deals with North Korean defectors
from a humanitarian standpoint, but does not treat them as refugees.
It is interested mainly in ethnic Koreans and their Japanese
wives who moved to North Korea following the North's “Paradise
on Earth” program initiated in 1959 to "build up the
homeland through the right to self-determination."
There is not even a mechanism in place, however, to deal with
these refugees. Japan's North Korean Human Rights Law, enacted
year, contains only a statement that "efforts should be
made to help these defectors." A cool reception indeed.
Cooperation Needed Between NGOs and Government
The Japanese government assists defectors up until they arrive
in Japan. After that, finding accommodation and employment, and
providing Japanese-language education is left entirely to NGOs.
The burden economically and in terms of manpower is immense,
and NGOs are reaching the breaking point.
Regardless of whether defectors arrive by land, air, or sea,
the Japanese government needs to provide those wishing to settle
in Japan with the tools needed to become fully-functioning members
of society. These include Japanese-language education, employment
training, and financial assistance toward finding employment.
The Japanese government does not, however, have to be solely
responsible for the smooth integration of defectors into Japanese
society. A framework for cooperation with NGOs experienced in
working with North Korean refugees needs to be established.
For those with the aim of settling in Japan and eventually becoming
independent, more needs to be done than just extolling the virtues
of Japanese society. Defectors also need to be taught about the
challenges and issues they will face living in Japan, as well
as details of Japanese customs and cultural differences. If,
after having these facts explained to them, they decide settling
in Japan would involve too many difficulties, they have the option
of settling in South Korea, where the government is much better
prepared to receive them.
Even in South Korea, though, the government relies heavily on
NGOs. We ask that our governments recognize the crucial role
that NGOs play, and on whose work they rely.
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