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Japan Undecided on N. Korean Asylum Seekers - 2003-02-19

Japan's government has not decided the fate of four North Korean refugees who walked into a Japanese school Tuesday in Beijing asking for asylum in Japan. Tokyo is apparently concerned that granting asylum might spark a flood of North Korean refugees.

The four North Koreans, a woman in her 40s, her two children and a 20-year-old male student, were taken from the school to a Japanese diplomatic office in Beijing.

In Tokyo, Japanese government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda says officials are still gathering facts about the refugees.

Mr. Fukuda says he cannot yet say what action Japan will take.

It is not clear if the four are North Korean citizens, former North Korean residents of Japan, or Japanese nationals who moved to North Korea.

In one previous incident, a Japanese national who had married a North Korean was allowed to return to her home country via China. But if any other North Korean refugees have sought or been given permission to go to Japan, Tokyo has kept it quiet.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi says Tokyo will examine the facts of each case separately.

The Foreign Minister says Japan considers humanitarian issues and relations with other nations in its asylum decisions.

One Japanese media report said the four asylum seekers would likely be sent to a third country, but a second said they would probably end up in South Korea. Another quoted government officials who are worried that the case might encourage many more North Koreans to try to get to Japan.

Human rights groups say hundreds-of-thousands of North Koreans have fled famine and political oppression in their isolated communist country and are now illegal migrants hiding in northeastern China. Chinese police have tracked down thousands of North Koreans and taken them back across the border, where rights groups say they may face severe persecution.

During the past year, more than 100 of North Koreans have sneaked, rushed, or tricked their way into diplomatic offices or schools in China as a way of gaining asylum. Most have been allowed to leave for South Korea, via third countries.

Asylum seekers are a sensitive issue for Japan, after a diplomatic incident last year in the northern Chinese city of Shenyang. Chinese police rushed into a Japanese diplomatic building there and dragged out five struggling and screaming North Korean refugees.

That action, which was seen on television around the world, violated international law, it prompted angry exchanges between Tokyo and Beijing, and sparked severe criticism of Japan's government at home.

Eventually, the North Koreans were allowed to leave China and travel to South Korea.