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N. Korean Refugees' Asylum Discussed by Beijing, Seoul - 2002-06-11

China and South Korea are discussing the fate of 17 North Korean refugees inside Seoul's mission in Beijing. The crisis over North Koreans hiding in foreign embassies has placed China in an increasingly awkward diplomatic position.

After several weeks of refusing to negotiate with Seoul, Beijing indicates it may find a solution to the growing crisis over North Koreans seeking asylum at the South Korean embassy here.

South Korean officials confirm that nine more North Koreans jumped over the wall of Seoul's embassy in Beijing Tuesday morning. At least 17 refugees are in the compound now. China will not comment on the latest refugee arrivals.

At a news conference Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Liu Jianchao tells reporters in Beijing that officials from both countries are holding talks. Mr. Liu says China will handle the cases according to domestic and international law, and in a humanitarian spirit.

Beijing has demanded Seoul hand over all of the North Koreans in the South Korean embassy. Beijing has said foreign diplomatic missions had no right to grant asylum to people from a third country. But during Tuesday's meeting with reporters, the Foreign Ministry spokesman did not repeat this demand.

Seoul has refused to surrender the North Koreans unless Beijing allows them to leave the country.

Mr. Liu adds that China and Canada are talking about the fate of two North Koreans who sought refuge at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing Saturday night.

A string of recent North Korean defections has placed China in a difficult diplomatic position. It has an agreement with Pyongyang to return North Koreans who illegally cross the border to China. But it fears angering the international community by deporting refugees to North Korea, where they face famine, persecution and, rights groups say, even execution.

As many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled their country for neighboring China.

Since March, dozens of North Koreans have sought asylum at foreign diplomatic missions in China, despite stepped-up security by Chinese police. Beijing has allowed at least 38 of the refugees to leave China for Seoul, via a third country.

China has tried to discourage further defections by hiring extra guards and surrounding diplomatic missions with barbed-wire fences.