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More North Koreans Seek Asylum at Diplomatic Compounds in Beijing - 2002-06-10

Five more North Korean refugees have sought asylum at foreign diplomatic compounds in Beijing, despite heavy Chinese security. This is the latest in a spate of defections since March that is placing China in a difficult position.

Two North Korean men entered the Canadian Embassy compound in Beijing on Saturday seeking asylum. Then on Monday, a South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three new asylum-seekers entered the South Korean embassy Sunday. The two women, one of whom is pregnant, and a two-year-old boy were reportedly disguised as Chinese visa applicants.

There are now a total of eight North Koreans inside the South Korean mission in Beijing and their fate remains unclear. China and South Korea have been at odds for the last three weeks, when the first North Koreans entered the Seoul mission.

Beijing demands that Seoul hand over all of the North Koreans who entered China illegally before seeking refuge at the South Korean Embassy. It says foreign diplomatic missions have no right to grant asylum to people from a third country. But Seoul refuses to hand over the asylum-seekers unless Beijing promises to let them leave the country.

As many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled to China to escape famine and persecution at home. But Beijing is North Korea's main ally, and does not recognize the refugee status of North Koreans illegally crossing the border to China. Beijing has an agreement with Pyongyang to send refugees back.

But in recent months, dozens of North Koreans have sought refuge at embassies in Beijing. The Chinese government has allowed those asylum seekers to leave for Seoul via a third country.

Christine Lee is a spokeswoman for the Alliance for North Korea Human Rights in Seoul. She told VOA that she is hopeful the eight North Koreans will also be allowed safe passage out of China to South Korea. "They have upheld this hard-line stance against the North Korean refugees," she said. "But as we saw in the recent series of incidents, most of the North Korean defectors, who entered the foreign embassies, were give safe passage … This is kind of a subtle change in attitude of the Chinese government and I think international pressure has played an important role."

But this case appears different, perhaps because China must deal directly with South Korea, the ultimate destination of all the asylum seekers.

China wants to discourage more defections, which will place it in further diplomatic difficulties with its ally, Pyongyang, and its significant economic trading partner, Seoul.

Chinese officials have posted extra guards at foreign missions and surrounded them with barbed wire.