International Papers

Gimme Shelter

Sino-Japanese relations have soured since Chinese guards forcibly removed five North Korean asylum-seekers from the grounds of the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China, on May 8. Tokyo claims the Chinese authorities violated Japanese sovereignty by entering the consulate grounds; the Chinese insist they were given permission. The Times of India summarized the standoff: “China completely rejects Japan’s viewpoint after Japan rejected China’s.” The North Koreans are still being detained by the Chinese, though recent reports have indicated they will soon be allowed to travel to South Korea via a third country.

China refused Japan’s demands for an apology for what it says was an “unauthorized entry” into the consulate and for a promise that the incident will not be repeated. The Financial Times reported that “China, fearing a flood of North Korean refugees fleeing repression and famine in their country, has resolved to take a hard line against asylum seekers. … The asylum seekers are being helped by China’s large ethnic Korean population, along the border with the North, and also by anti-Pyongyang activists campaigning against human rights abuses in the country.” As many as 300,000 North Koreans are thought to have crossed the Yalu River into northeast China. The BBC said that supporters of North Korean asylum seekers plan to use next month’s World Cup, co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, “to highlight their cause.”

A South Korean video crew, which had been tipped off, captured the scene on tape, and the footage has been shown repeatedly on Japanese TV. According to the Japan Times, the tape shows “three officers wrestling two screaming women, one of them carrying a child, to the ground just inside an open gate and dragging them outside it.” (The video, in RealPlayer format, can be seen on the BBC’s Web site.) The Korea Herald concluded, “The current outrage … has more to do with the unthinkable response by the consulate staff shown in the video … than the obvious fact of intrusion by the Chinese.” Asahi Shimbun agreed, “The point here is that the Japanese side apparently made no determined effort to make an on-the-spot protest against China’s illegal actions.”

The Japan Times said neither country was blameless in the affair: “There is no question that Chinese authorities violated Japanese sovereignty. … It is also clear, however, that Japanese diplomats lacked a proper sense of sovereignty and a clear commitment to refugee protection, thus allowing Chinese police to arrest the North Korean defectors.” The video clearly shows Japanese diplomats passively watching the “cruelty of the Chinese police,” failing to protest, and even collecting and returning policemen’s caps knocked off in the melee. Japanese papers have also documented the way diplomats have changed their stories as more facts have come to light.

The Yomiuri Shimbun claimed the Japanese reactions reflect “the tendency to act in a masochistic way when it comes to a matter involving China.” It concluded, “Found throughout the process is a way of doing things ‘without incident’ by avoiding taking any confrontational stand, which has much to do with the deep-rooted tendency in the bureaucracy to shirk responsibility.” Several papers suggested that the consular officials’ inaction reflected what the Japan Times described as “Japan’s relatively cool attitude toward refugees in general.” An op-ed in the same paper declared, “Indeed, given Japan’s consistent record of only granting asylum, and then most reluctantly, to refugees who make it to Japan, the attitude of the vice consul was hardly surprising.”

Why is Tokyo playing up the incident? The Japan Times offered three theories: 1) Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi “chose to overreact to avoid looking bad.” 2) Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have been strained recently over Koizumi’s visits to a shrine that houses Japanese war dead, and this “incident seemed to provide a good chance for Koizumi to hit back from the high ground of respecting international law and human rights, thus putting Beijing on the defensive while simultaneously pleasing Seoul.” 3) By “drumming up the Chinese violation of Japan’s diplomatic mission to crisis proportion and by arousing ultranationalist sentiment, the Koizumi government is trying to shift the focus of attention from domestic politics to external affairs.”