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North Korea Woman Finds Refuge in South Korean Visa Office - 2002-06-21

Another North Korean refugee managed to slip into South Korea's consulate in China Friday, something sure to heat up a diplomatic dispute between China and South Korea. At issue is the fate of 23 asylum-seekers, and relations between two of Asia's biggest trading nations.

A 31-year-old North Korean woman got past guards and rings of barbed wire surrounding South Korea's visa office in Beijing.

Security at the consulate was strengthened after 20 other North Koreans managed to slip into the building. Officials would not say how this latest person eluded Chinese security, but others have used false identity papers to get in.

Chinese security guards chased a North Korean man with poor-quality false papers into the South Korean building and dragged him away. The guards punched and kicked South Korean diplomats in the incident, sparking a diplomatic wrangle with Seoul accusing Beijing of violating international law.

Previously, China allowed the asylum-seekers to leave the country, but now demands that they be turned over to police. Talks have been under way for almost a month on the fate of the asylum-seekers in the South Korean consulate and two more who found refuge in Canada's embassy.

Human rights groups have said up to 300,000 North Koreans have illegally crossed the border into China, fleeing political oppression and starvation at home.

China has a treaty with North Korea that requires Beijing to return illegal migrants. But human rights groups say China also has an obligation under international law to allow the United Nations to determine if the migrants should be protected as political refugees.

Amnesty International said North Koreans face persecution and even execution if they go home. The rights group Friday said China has rounded up 1,400 North Koreans in northeast China and sent them home in the past few months, and urged China to end the crackdown.

China's Foreign Ministry called Amnesty International's comments "groundless" and denied that there is a crackdown under way.