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N. Korean Asylum Seekers Break Into Embassy in China - 2002-03-14

China says it is trying to negotiate a solution to a diplomatic crisis sparked Thursday when two dozen North Koreans burst into an embassy in Beijing seeking asylum.

At least 20 North Koreans pushed past Chinese guards and into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing Thursday. Once inside, they asked for asylum and passage to South Korea. Some of them said they were carrying poison and would rather die than go back to North Korea.

The Spanish Embassy was quickly ringed by dozens of Chinese police, who blocked off nearby streets and kept reporters away.

A Tokyo-based human rights group says the North Koreans face dire consequences if sent back.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue says Beijing is working to find a solution to the diplomatic incident. She says "China's government is speaking to 'relevant parties' to determine what should be done." But she indicated "Beijing's initial position is that the asylum-seekers should not get special treatment granted refugees."

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to China after suffering years of drought, famine, floods and hunger at home. China's policy is to treat the fleeing North Koreans as economic migrants who should be sent home, rather than political refugees entitled to protection.

Ms. Zhang says China deals with North Korean asylum-seekers in a "humanitarian way," and says there is "no refugee crisis between the two countries."

This latest defection puts China in a difficult position, which maintain good relations with both North and South Korea, and is seeking to help broker new talks between Pyongyang and Seoul. In addition, Beijing is concerned that if this group of North Koreans is given passage to South Korea, it will only encourage more defections.

Last year a family of seven North Koreans walked into a United Nations office in Beijing, demanding asylum. After days of intense negotiations, the family was allowed to travel to South Korea on humanitarian grounds.