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South Korea Urges China Not to Repatriate 3 North Koreans - 2002-04-30

South Korea is asking China not to repatriate three North Koreans arrested in Beijing Monday, but China said it knows nothing about those arrests.

News reports have said three North Koreans were arrested by Chinese police while trying to sneak into the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, Monday.

It is the latest in a string of incidents in which North Koreans residing in China have tried to enter foreign embassies in Beijing, demand asylum and get safe passage to South Korea. Dozens of North Koreans in three separate groups have gotten out of China this way in the past six weeks.

South Korea's foreign ministry appealed to Chinese officials on behalf of the North Koreans who are reportedly in police custody. Seoul has asked Beijing to deal with the Northerners "in accordance with humanitarian considerations."

But China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said Monday's alleged incident is news to Beijing officials.

Mr. Kong did not comment directly on South Korea's request not to send the North Koreans home, but did say China's actions are in accordance with relevant international and Chinese laws. He said Beijing handles North Koreans in a "humanitarian" fashion.

Thousands of North Koreans have illegally crossed the border into China, fleeing years of famine and repression at home. Many of these illegal migrants hide with ethnic Korean families in the border area, while others try to make their way to South Korea.

The incident puts China in a difficult diplomatic position. Beijing wants to maintain friendly relations with North Korea, but risks harsh international criticism if it sends the immigrants back to their starving nation.

Human rights groups say the fleeing North Koreans are refugees who deserve special protection, but Beijing says they are illegal economic migrants seeking a better life who should be sent back.