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Sunday, June 2, 2002


Who's got the scoop on the Shenyang Five?

The disagreement between the foreign ministries of Japan and China over the attempted defection by five North Koreans at the Japanese consulate in Shenyang was intensified by a comment made early on by LDP Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda. During a press conference, Fukuda looked at the assembled scribblers and said, without the least bit of irony, "Who are you going to believe, the Chinese or your own government?"

The reporters' failure to burst out laughing can be looked upon as either admirable restraint or a lost opportunity. Or maybe something else. On TBS's news variety show "Broadcaster," film critic Sachiko Watanabe commented that the remark filled her with "sadness." Considering the reputation the Foreign Ministry presently enjoys, owing to scandals ranging from misappropriated funds to pimping for Muneo Suzuki, "sad" seems a weak response to the patronizing and undiplomatic remark.

Fukuda, a political prince and notorious botchan (spoiled rich kid), is considered by many pundits to be the true leader of Japan at the moment. The fact that he can utter such a statement with a straight face proves just how out of touch the country's leadership is. For its part, the media feels safe revealing the Foreign Ministry's lack of diplomatic common sense, but the he-said-she-said coverage of the Japan-China contretemps has become redundant and boring. More importantly, it has deflected attention away from the main issue, which is the tens of thousands of North Koreans living illegally in China.

This issue is the main impetus behind not only the defection that was captured so dramatically on videotape, but the existence of the videotape itself. Because the controversy has devolved into recriminations over Japan's unwillingness to accept or help refugees (a position that Fukuda practically admits to), the issue of North Korean refugees itself has been passed over in classic not-seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees manner.

The support group that helped the defectors in their bid to get into the Japanese consulate admit that the defection was a publicity stunt meant to put Japan and China on the spot (in that regard, it succeeded 200 percent) and to draw attention to the huge number of North Koreans who are planning similar defections and the reasons they are in China. Though the media reports sporadically on the situation at the porous China-North Korea border, news from that front has tended to take on an isolated, human-interest quality that doesn't do justice to the enormity of the problem. And the exceptions, at least so far, haven't made the situation much clearer.

Befitting its reputation as a news show that takes on issues the rest of the Japanese media glide over, TV Asahi's "Scoop" ran an in-depth report on the refugee problem on May 25. Relying almost entirely on video footage and reportage supplied by the nongovernmental organization RENK, the special was harrowing in its depiction of human suffering at the border, where refugees risk their lives crossing back and forth, and those who are caught face imprisonment, torture and death. The program ended with a disturbing videotape of a black market near the border, where barefoot homeless children live off of grains of rice that they pick out of the mud.

Qualifying almost as a rebuttal, NHK's nightly newsmagazine, "Closeup Gendai," ran a report a few days later on the same topic. The tone and thrust were completely different. The phrase that NHK used to describe the situation was kikaku bomei (planned defections), a term that stresses the organization behind the refugee movement. According to NHK, the majority of North Korean refugees come to China for economic reasons and, in fact, move to and fro across the border with relative freedom.

The report characterized the supporters of the refugees who make it to South Korea as essentially brokers, meaning organizations and individuals who make a living out of smuggling people out of China. The Shenyang Five were presented as desperate people who carried poison in case their attempt failed, but the emphasis was on the sophisticated PR, not the plight of the five individuals. Whereas the Asahi report was based on information supplied by a refugee support group, NHK's was mostly taken from coverage carried out by a neutral South Korean journalist.

In that regard, the different agenda was perhaps understandable. But one common statistic stuck out uncomfortably. In the past year, the number of refugees who have made it to South Korea has more than doubled. "Scoop" explained this increase by saying that the Chinese authorities are now cracking down on both refugees and the NGOs who help them, thus making it imperative for those who want to defect to do it now. NHK, however, implied that the reason for the increase is that the Chinese are actually looking the other way.

This glaring analytical discrepancy could be explained by the broadcasters' respective take on the news. True to its name, "Scoop" tends to aim for immediacy and drama over accuracy and balance; and NHK avoids overt criticism of China because of its enviable news access to official organs. Nonetheless, though organizations like RENK exploit shows like "Scoop" to make their case, the NGO is generally accepted (even by the Japanese government) as the only credible source of information about the situation at the border.

It is the job of the media, though, to provide the public with a balanced outlook -- something we don't have right now with regard to the North Korean refugee problem. To paraphrase Yasuo Fukuda, whom shall we believe, TV Asahi or NHK? The fact that we may not completely believe either points to a crisis that goes beyond he-said-she-said.

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