07/06/2004, 00.00
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Beijing Sentences a Japanese Man for Helping North Korean Refugees

Seoul (AsiaNews) – A Chinese Court recently sentenced a Japanese man to 8 months of jail and fined him 20,000 yuans for helping two North Korean refugees. Takayuki Noguchi is a 32-year old member of Life Funds for North Korean Refugees (LFNKR), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is active in both China and Japan on behalf of North Korean refugees.

Noguchi was arrested on December 10 of last year inside China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, whilst helping two escapees from North Korea cross the border. This is the first time that a Chinese court has inflicted such heavy sentence on a Japanese citizen engaged in humanitarian work. In 2002, LFNKR's Secretary General Hiroshi Kato was arrested for similar reasons but was released and repatriated to Japan after only one week.

According to the judge the sentence was passed because the accused was helping two North Koreans who were not officially recognised as refugees. He said that "humanitarian activities must be carried out in compliance with the laws of the host country." Given that he has been in prison since last December, the prisoner has already served a good portion of his sentence. Repatriation is scheduled for August 9. The lives of the two escapees are in danger if, as it is expected, they are sent back to North Korea.

Japanese NGOs have condemned the sentence as an unjust and unforgivable attack against humanitarian action whose sole purpose is helping North Korean nationals seek political asylum. Professor Lee Young Hwa of Kansai University (Japan) sees the sentence as a warning against Japanese NGOs involved in similar activities. "The Chinese authorities are probably clamping down on such activities," he added.

It is not hard to see the political motivation behind the latest crackdown. China is engaged in a difficult mediation between North Korea and the United States. Irritating Kin Jong-il, North Korea's leader, is not in China's interest.

So far the Japanese government has not reacted to the sentence. The silence is understandable but not justified. For Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi having good relations with China is very important, especially to solve the nuclear standoff with North Korea. Still the sentence has not gone unnoticed in Japan. For Masaharu Nakagawa, a member of the Japanese Diet for the main opposition party, all North Korean escapes should be considered refugees. The actions of the sentenced Japanese are to his credit and that of other Japanese groups involved in similar activities. In general, the members of these NGOs are young and motivated by a desire to make reparations for the injustices committed by their grandfathers' generation during Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula. (PC)

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