Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

North Korean refugees case from a gender perspective
Mikie Stillman / NIRA Director

May 24, 2002
Nothing is more striking among recent news events than the videotape showing two North Korean women and a little girl being violently taken out by Chinese armed police from the premises of Japan’s Consulate General in Shengyang, China. The young mother is clinging to the gate fence with all her might, screaming desperately against the police. Her two-year old daughter is standing next to her in shock. The picture of her face has the same impact as that of a naked burned Vietnamese girl running away under the napalm bombardment of the US army.

Dramatic news picture from the Vietnam War spread around the world the atrocities of the US army. In the same way, the picture in front of the Japanese Consulate General pictorializes eloquently the merciless Chinese police and the oppressive regime of North Korea. Both China and North Korea are still communist countries. Starkly put, the US fought against communism in Vietnam and virtually lost. Ironically, many Vietnamese disliked the communist regime and after the peace agreement thousands of them escaped to the free world just like today’s North Koreans. Indeed, the burned Vietnamese girl also went to the US to start a new life.

These two pictures, one in Vietnam and the other in China, show not only one ideological contrast between communism and capitalism but also other stark contrasts: men and women as well as adults and children. Generally, those who see these pictures feel full of sympathy towards poor women and powerless children. Chinese armed police officers are men. And the officers of the Japanese Consulate General standing by and watching, who did not seem to grasp the whole situation, are also men. Let’s recall the fact that the two North Korean men (!) of the family seeking asylum successfully escaped into the premises of the Consulate General, leaving behind their pregnant wife holding a little child on her back and aged mother. One wonders why the girl’s father who must be stronger and can run faster did not carry her at the time of escape. In hindsight I feel rather relieved that these men were also later taken out from the consulate compound to join their family. Close family ties would be tragically cut if the men succeeded in gaining asylum but at the cost of leaving the women and girl behind. In that case many around the world would have blamed these men.

Now let’s turn to another high-profile gender situation in Japan. Four nurses, all women, concocted a conspiracy thanks to their medical knowledge, and allegedly killed one or perhaps two of their husbands in order to collect on the life insurance. There are many other horrific criminal cases and surprising verdicts which suggest women are not always considered as a weaker sex in contemporary Japan. A wife who fatally hit her adulterous and debt-burdened husband was sentenced to 8 years’ imprisonment. On the other hand, a step-father who abused and killed a five-year old boy received a 6-year sentence. He did not feed his son enough and continued subjected him to merciless physical violence for more than 2 years. Under the criminal code, these two sentences must have had solid legal grounds. But for ordinary people, the court cases seem to judge that killing a middle-aged husband who deserved some blame and was certainly able to defend himself is a less serious crime than killing a little boy who had absolutely no means or knowledge to defend himself in front of the cruel step-father. Has the Japanese husband become such a weak creature who needs to be protected from his cruel and powerful wife?

Many middle-aged Japanese men who are fired due to the stubborn recession have committed suicide or pretend to be employed. Those who conclude that this phenomenon is something unique in Japan should see a British movie “Full Monty”. Here, we find the character of a British white-color ex-manager who pretends to go to the office every morning even after he lost his job as he could not find the courage to confess that fact to his wife.

We could not say simplistically that men are strong and women are weak in whichever country. However, it seems a universal truth that women and children are the most effective in attracting sympathy from all around the world. One might even suspect that the group who tried to help the asylum of the said North Korean family and organized a professional cameramen to film the incident might even have anticipated that two women and a girl slow in running, risked being caught by the Chinese police guarding the consulate gate. It is well known that a movie director who might be struggling to create a new idea about his film often relies on an easy recourse to trigger sympathy: e.g having a child character suffer from a difficult illness or a cute animal as a hero. Such a movie is invariably successful without exception. Cynically we might wonder that in today’s dramatized international politics, it could become all to possible to arrange a “documentary film” that has women and children as its suffering heroines.

Now these five North Koreans could safely escape to a third country from China. This video must remind Western people who thought that the cold war was over that in East Asia still in this 21st century many people are trying to cross the “Berlin Wall” to freedom from tyranny.

Of course, the news coverage on this incident is limited in China where control of mass media is possible, while in Japan where free press reports always this case as the top news since it happened. I hope that the consulate male officers are mentally strong enough to withstand the constant barrage of criticisms. They are harshly accused everyday by the general public for not stopping the violation of the consulate premises by the Chinese authorities and for not helping effectively the asylum seekers. They will certainly be punished under the regulations for public servants.

The writer is a think tank (NIRA) director. She is former University Professor of Public Policy (Osaka University).
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

スティルマン美紀恵 / NIRA(シンクタンク)ディレクター

2002年 5月 24日








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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > North Korean refugees case from a gender perspective