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North Koreans Seek Asylum in South Korean Consulate in Beijing - 2002-05-25

Three North Koreans have taken refuge in the South Korean consulate in Beijing, seeking asylum.

A South Korean embassy official confirmed Saturday that the North Koreans are in the South Korean consulate. He says they want political asylum in South Korea.

Consultations between the embassy and the Chinese authorities are under way, but it is unclear when the matter will be resolved. The official says one man entered the consulate on Thursday, and a man and a woman entered on Friday.

There has not been any immediate comment from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

This is yet another in a string of asylum bids in foreign diplomatic missions by North Koreans fleeing famine and repression in the hard-line communist state.

China views the asylum seekers as economic refugees and has a treaty with its North Korean ally to return them.

Over the past three months, at least 38 North Koreans have sought asylum in diplomatic missions. Beijing has allowed them travel to South Korea via other countries.

China and Japan became embroiled in a diplomatic dispute over five North Korean asylum seekers Chinese police pulled out of a Japanese consulate, earlier this month. Last week, Beijing allowed the group to travel to South Korea via Manila. This latest incident is the first confirmed instance that North Koreans have entered a South Korean diplomatic mission.

This poses a diplomatic challenge to Seoul, which is trying to balance its humanitarian concerns with its delicate relations with Pyongyang. South Korea and North Korea never signed a peace treaty after the Korean War in the 1950's, and are still technically at war.

The Chinese authorities have tried to deter asylum bids in Beijing, by blocking off access to embassies.