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Japan to Demand China Release Asylum Seekers

A senior Japanese diplomat is being dispatched to China to attempt to gain the release of five suspected North Korean asylum seekers arrested by Chinese police at a Japanese consulate. The incident has led to an exchange of angry words between Japan and China.

Japanese government officials say Vice-Foreign Minister Seiken Sugiura will go to China in the next few days in an attempt to settle the dispute. Japan, according to media reports, will demand that the asylum seekers be released, and that Chinese police apologize for entering Japan's consulate in Shenyang.

A team of Japanese diplomats is already in Shenyang, on orders of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. He has told Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi that he wants to know whether the consulate's staff did anything to help the asylum seekers. Mr. Koizumi accuses China of violating diplomatic conventions.

Video shot from a nearby building showed Chinese police running onto the grounds of the consulate, and dragging out three of the suspected asylum seekers. They later entered the consulate and took two more people into custody.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry says police officers removed the two asylum seekers inside the building after obtaining permission from a consul official. China says the consulate later agreed that all five could be taken into Chinese custody.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry angrily responded that there was no such agreement.

In a related matter, Chinese and American negotiators continue talks in Beijing regarding three North Koreans now in the U.S. consulate in Shenyang. They climbed over the walls of the compound last week.

Thousands of North Koreans have crossed into China in the past few years to escape famine and repression. China says it is required by treaty to return any asylum seekers. But human rights activists contend that those who are returned to North Korea are either sent to camps for political prisoners or are executed.

In the past few months, more than 30 North Koreans have forced their way into foreign embassy compounds in China to claim asylum. Beijing has allowed most of them to travel out of the country, and they have gone first to the Philippines, then on to South Korea.