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More N. Koreans Seek Refuge in S. Korean Embassy - 2002-07-24

Several more North Koreans have sought refuge at the South Korean embassy in Beijing. China and South Korea are in talks about how to let the asylum-seekers leave the country. But tens of thousands of other North Koreans are still believed to be hiding in China.

A South Korean diplomat says he cannot reveal the exact number of North Koreans seeking refuge at Seoul's mission in Beijing, or when or how they entered the compound. But the diplomat speaking Wednesday on condition of anonymity, says Beijing has indicated it will soon allow the asylum-seekers to leave China.

Scores of North Koreans have sought asylum at foreign diplomatic missions in Beijing this year, despite increased security around embassies.

Aid groups say as many as 300,000 North Koreans have fled to neighboring China to escape famine and repression at home.

Erica Kang is a coordinator for Good Friends, a group that gives humanitarian aid to North Korean refugees in Seoul. Ms. Kang says thousands of North Koreans hiding in northeastern China live in constant fear of repatriation. "Because the Chinese government considers these people as criminal offenders, once they get caught, they have to be sent back," she says. "So they have to keep hiding and there are seasonal crackdowns on these refugees, being illegal immigrants so to speak. "

Beijing is Pyongyang's main ally, and has an agreement with North Korea to return people 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 sometimes execution.

In recent months, China has allowed those who enter embassies to leave for South Korea, via a third country. The South Korean embassy official says China appears to have softened its stance against North Koreans seeking refuge at Seoul's mission in Beijing. In May and June, Seoul and Beijing were embroiled in a diplomatic standoff over refugees in South Korean diplomatic buildings. In the end, China allowed more than 20 North Koreans to go to South Korea.

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