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China-S.Korea Asylum Seekers Dispute Heats Up - 2002-06-14

The diplomatic dispute between China and South Korea over the fate of some asylum-seekers is getting hotter. Beijing expressed "strong displeasure" with South Korean actions, while Seoul says police should not enter diplomatic grounds. The latest chapter began when two North Koreans rushed into the South Korean consulate in Beijing, hoping for passage to South Korea.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao says police acted to protect the consulate after security guards tried to stop two people who were carrying false passports. Police managed to grab one of the asylum seekers and, after a five-hour standoff that turned violent, hauled him away.

South Korea demands that Chinese police return the man, but China's Mr. Liu says Beijing will not do that, dismissing the demand as "groundless and unreasonable."

He also says South Korean diplomats who stood shoulder to shoulder around the fleeing North Korean to keep police at bay violated international laws. Chinese police pushed, kicked, punched the diplomats and threw one of them to the ground.

South Korea's government says the police intrusion was a "grave violation" of international law and lodged a "strong protest" with China's ambassador to Seoul.

Beijing says the asylum seeker was seized by security guards hired by South Korea, not by Chinese police, so there was no violation of international law.

South Korean diplomats respond by saying the security guards may be paid by South Korea, but they are controlled by China. One diplomat says the guards entered a consulate office to grab the fleeing North Koreans Thursday.

China's Foreign Ministry says embassies do not have the right to grant asylum to migrants and demands that all illegal migrants be turned over to police. About 18 migrants are now hiding in the South Korean consulate.

Canadian diplomats say two more are staying in Canada's Beijing embassy, and negotiations on their fate are under way with China's government.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of North Koreans are illegally hiding in China after fleeing famine and repression at home. This year, dozens of them have scrambled past guards and barbed-wire fences to get into diplomatic buildings in China. Once inside, they demand asylum and safe passage to South Korea.

Until now, China has let them go, generally by way of other countries. But Beijing is signaling a new, tougher stand toward the refugees. Officials may be worried that allowing too many refugees to flow out of China will spark a flood of migrants out of starving North Korea.