At a time when North Korea was celebrating its 63rd anniversary and boasting of potential greatness, nine relatives sneaked away on a small boat during the hoopla and headed toward South Korea for a better life.
That's part of the sketchy story surrounding the nine apparent North Korean defectors who were found off the Noto Peninsula in the Sea of Japan on the morning of Sept. 13. They were transported by helicopter to the Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture the following day.
The Foreign Ministry and other parties are expected to consult with South Korea after confirming the crew members' desire to seek asylum there. Immigration procedures have been accelerated in Japan given their circumstances. Customs and quarantine procedures, necessary for entry into Japan, have already been completed.
Japan Coast Guard investigators questioned the apparent defectors on Sept. 14 aboard a patrol vessel anchored near Kanazawa Port. Information about the nine--three men, three women and three boys aged around 10―is gradually emerging, indicating they were relatively well-off in North Korea yet risked their lives to flee the country.
The leader of the group was quoted as saying they were all family members and relatives who left the east coast of North Korea on Sept. 8 and wanted to go to South Korea, according to the Japan Coast Guard's 9th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters.
One of the nine said he was affiliated with the North Korean military, a coast guard official said.
Journalist Jiro Ishimaru, who has interviewed a number of North Korean defectors and has published reports by internal sources in North Korea, said a connection to the military is often needed to escape from Kim Jong Il's regime.
"The military has a hold on concessions of the fishery industry, which it sees as a means to earn foreign currency. You cannot even obtain a boat unless you buy or steal one that is under the grip of a certain entity," he said.
Ishimaru said the group likely made the trip by sea because patrols have tightened around the border with China.
"They probably wanted to head for South Korea but ended up in Japan because of ocean currents," Ishimaru said.
Japanese fishing boats heading out to catch sea bream and black rockfish spotted the small wooden boat with Korean letters on the hull adrift off Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture. After a local branch of the fishermen's union and the Japan Coast Guard were notified, seven fishing boats followed the small boat for about two hours until a Coast Guard patrol vessel arrived.
The apparent captain of the wooden, roofless 8-meter boat powered by a red engine at the stern spoke in a North Korean dialect to Coast Guard officials.
"We have been calling for help," he was quoted as saying.
The crew of the boat said they left North Korea with 180 liters of light oil and 30 liters of water. There were only about 60 liters of fuel and a paltry amount of water remaining. Small quantities of rice and "kimchi" pickles were also found on the boat, as well as signs of cooking.
"I am surprised that they came all the way down here in such a small boat," said a senior Japan Coast Guard official.
Toshio Miyatsuka, professor of modern Korean economic history at Yamanashi Gakuin University, said the crew's possessions indicate that the family was not destitute in North Korea.
"They have procured a sizable amount of light oil, a boat equipped with an engine and rice. They don't appear to have come from a very poor class," he said.
Lee Young-hwa, a professor of North Korean economy at Kansai University who is well versed in human rights issues in North Korea, said the apparent defections by relatively wealthy citizens show that Pyongyang's promises of becoming a prosperous country have not convinced the people.
"Pyongyang propagandizes that people's lives will turn for the better next year when 'a great gate of the great, prosperous and powerful nation is opened.' But improvements in living conditions appear unlikely next year. That probably led them to defect from the country," Lee said.
The nine said they departed on the morning of Sept. 8, a day before a military parade was held in Pyongyang to mark the country's 63rd anniversary.
"They may have targeted a time when the festive atmosphere in urban areas helped relax the patrols along the coast," Miyatsuka said.
The question now for the Japanese government is what to do with the nine.
"It would be reasonable to grant the nine people landing permission on a humanitarian basis and hand them over to a third country, such as South Korea," said Hidenori Sakanaka, former director of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau and currently director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute.
Sakanaka cited a case in Aomori Prefecture, when four North Korean defectors were discovered at Fukaura Port in June 2007. They were granted "landing permission for temporary refuge" following "permission for provisional landing."
The four were taken to an Immigration Bureau facility in Ibaraki Prefecture before being transported to South Korea two weeks later.
The nine have already filed for "landing permission for temporary refuge" with the Immigration Bureau of Japan. It was expected to be approved as early as Sept. 14 because it may be difficult for the nine to travel to South Korea by their own means without a transit stay in Japan.
Landing permission for temporary refuge, valid for up to six months, can be granted to those who have "entered Japan after fleeing from a territory where their life, body or physical freedom are threatened."
According to the South Korean Ministry of Unification, more than 20,000 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea by the end of 2010. Several thousand more are expected this year.
Most of them cross the border to China. But some travel even farther to Mongolia or Southeast Asia for fear of being caught and extradited by Beijing.
In July this year, Seoul started to build a second Settlement Support Center for North Korean Refugees, or "Hanawon."
North Korean defectors these days are motivated not only by severe food shortages, especially in rural areas, but also by dreams of joining the prosperous and exuberant lives of South Koreans. According to a source close to a group of defectors in South Korea, many North Koreans, especially younger people, are enjoying pop music and films from South Korea on the increasing number of portable music players and computer tablets flowing from China.
However, patrols along defection routes across the border to China have reportedly tightened since around 2006, when the annual count of North Korean defectors topped 2,000 for the first time. But maritime routes can be just as perilous.
"Control is tight on the sea. Only one or two groups can make it to South Korea every year. There must be many cases that end up in failure," said a defector who was a military officer in North Korea.
"Demands for bribes have added to the cost of defecting through China," said a source close to another group of North Korean defectors in South Korea. "People may continue to try to escape by way of the sea."
- « Prev
- Next »