Japan poorly prepared for influx of North Korean refugees

Updated : 01.05.2017 / Category Politics

As tension rises over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, how Japan should deal with tens of thousands of refugees expected to arrive should a contingency occur on the Korean Peninsula has become a pressing issue.

The Japanese government began addressing the issue in the early 2000s, with an expert panel established by the Cabinet Secretariat considering a scenario in which North Korean people flee their homeland by boat to take refuge in Japan.

Unfortunately, the scenario was poorly worked out, experts say. For example, the panel used satellite and aerial photos to estimate the number of wooden vessels in the reclusive state, and extrapolated this to calculate roughly 100,000 to 150,000 North Korean refugees could reach Japan. The Omura Immigration Center in Nagasaki Prefecture in western Japan would be unable to accommodate so many refugees, so the panel listed nearby public facilities, such as schools and public servants' housing, which in total theoretically could hold the estimated number of people.

But the panel stopped short of crafting specific policies such as what welfare services the government should provide or how to help these refugees find jobs and settle in Japan. According to well-informed sources, the panel struggled to form detailed plans because the estimated number of refugees was too broad to effectively discuss support programs for them.

China, South Korea taking containment policies

What would happen if 100,000 refugees inundated Japan? Some local governments would become almost paralyzed as they tried to cope with the influx. North Korean people have high literacy rates and are well educated, but are said to lack experience in civil society interactions. In South Korea, North Korean defectors often struggle to find good jobs, in many cases eventually taking up manual labor. The situation would likely be even harder for refugees in Japan because most do not understand Japanese.

Furthermore, due to the collapse of North Korea's administration system, citizens often bribe government officials when they apply for various permits, enter new schools and find jobs. Many defectors have said they did not know bribery is illegal in the international community. In some cases, stimulant drugs are reportedly used as a form of hospitality for special guests. If masses of North Koreans fled to Japan, it could create turmoil in Japanese society, where conformity is valued.

South Korea and the United States worked out a contingency plan when Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush were presidents. The plan was military in nature and reportedly put priority on preventing an influx of refugees to minimize the contingency's impact on the security of the two nations. Under the plan, the South Korean and U.S. militaries would be deployed along the demilitarized zone and coastal regions to send back any refugees trying to enter South Korea.

China, for its part, has reportedly bolstered security along its border with North Korea, evicting Chinese residents in the region to expand areas directly administered by military units. "These measures aim to prevent North Korean refugees from entering China during a contingency," said a source familiar with China-North Korean affairs. If refugees pour into China's three northeast provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning--which lag many provinces in economic development--it could have serious ramifications for their economy and public order.

In essence, South Korea, the United States and China are adopting a policy of containing North Korean refugees, observers say.

How to deal with armed refugees

Behind such scenarios is the possibility of armed North Koreans disguised as ordinary refugees entering China and South Korea. According to the South Korean white paper on national defense, North Korea has more than 200,000 special forces personnel, who could infiltrate China and South Korea as refugees to carry out terrorist acts such as bombing vital infrastructure and assassinating key figures.

South Korea likely would be the destination for many armed "refugees." Once inside South Korea, it is possible they could attack dams, public transport systems and government offices.

How about Japan? Experts say Japan should urgently address the issue of armed refugees attempting to enter the nation. Ordinary refugees would have difficulty travelling to Japan. For one thing, North Koreans need to obtain several permits before leaving a port on a small, wooden boat. Even if they succeed in leaving port, unskilled sailors would need to navigate on rough seas for several days to reach Japan.

By contrast, special forces personnel masquerading as refugees could reach Japan relatively easily.

Japan's Self-Defense Forces has worked out its own plan to deal with armed refugees. Since the late 1990s, the SDF has studied effective tactics against armed refugees (called "guerrilla commandoes") and repeatedly conducted drills to prepare for such a situation. To track down agents hiding in city and mountain areas, the SDF has discussed ways to cooperate with local police and governments, which use maps and radio communications in different ways.

In Japan and South Korea, however, there reportedly are many North Korean sleeper agents, who lead a normal life in ordinary times, but will cooperate with armed refugees should a contingency occur. Last year, North Korea's state radio resumed a program reading out seemingly random number tables, possibly indicating Pyongyang is sending more instructions to its spies in Japan and South Korea. If armed refugees go into hiding with the help of sleeper agents, flushing them out will be very difficult.

Japan will not be able to stay isolated from any armed conflict that erupts on the Korean Peninsula, and the repercussions likely will be felt on its soil, experts warn.


This is a translation of an article from the April 2017 issue of Sentaku. The original article can be found here.