Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
Japan’s North Korea refugee risk
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il‘s reported annointing of his youngest son, offspring of a Japan-born dancer, as heir highlights a dark chapter in Japan’s history and a possible refugee headache if the regime collapses.
Apparent heir Kim Jong-un is said by South Korean media to be a son of Ko Young-hee, one of about 100,000 Koreans who returned to the North from Japan in the 1960s hoping to find a workers’ paradise. Many were brought to Japan as forced labour before World War Two and faced discrimination after the war.
No matter who succeeds the 67-year-old Kim, no one knows if the succession will go smoothly or whether the reclusive communist state will fall into chaos, sending streams of refugees to China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.
So here is the question: Is Japan ready in case North Korea collapses for reasons such as a power struggle as it choses Kim Jong-il’s successor or any rise of military confrontation in the future?
Analaysts said most refugees are likely to go to China and the South, but add that repatriated Koreans and their families may wish to come to Japan, a country less than welcoming to refugees in general and uncomfortable with North Koreans in particular.
“If they say they want to come back, we cannot reject them just because of their nationality from a humanitarian viewpoint,” Masao Okonogi, a Korean expert at Tokyo’s Keio University told me. “It has the potential to become a big social issue.”
Tokyo’s ties with Pyongyang have long been rocky for reasons ranging from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of Korea to North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan also sees itself as a potential victim of any attack by nearby North Korea.
Under a 1959 repatriation accord, over 90,000 Korean residents and 1,800 Japanese wives went to live in the North, expecting to find a better life. Such returnees and their families may now number as many as 300,000, Okonogi says.
A senior Japanese foreign ministry official says Tokyo is considering what to do if a crisis prompted a flood of North Korean refugees, but he declined to give me details.
The National Institute for Defense Studies, a government-affiliated think tank, said in a recent report that Japan should come up with plans to cope with up to 150,000 North Korean refugees.