The decision by four North Korean defectors to brave 900 kilometers of open water in a small wooden boat to reach Japan suggests a level of desperation not seen before.
And it may signal that North Koreans are seeking out new routes to escape from the repressive regime in Pyongyang.
China traditionally was the route of choice. But after Beijing began to crack down out of consideration for its ties with North Korea, defectors started turning up all over Asia.
According to South Korean government officials as well as those who work with groups helping North Korean defectors, Thailand and Mongolia emerged as alternative escape routes from North Korea after China tried to put a stop to the exodus of North Koreans across its border. But now that both those nations have tightened their borders against defectors, North Koreans have been forced to consider alternative escape routes.
As one source working with a South Korean group helping North Korean defectors noted, "If the Japanese government grants asylum in this case, there may be an increase in the number of defectors who choose to make their way to Japan."
What does seem clear is that Japan's response to the issue will be closely watched.
[Excerpt of an article by Tadanao Takatsuki, The Asahi Shimbun]