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More North Koreans Seek Asylum at South Korean Embassy in Beijing - 2002-07-26

More North Koreans have sought refuge at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, and talks on the fate of the asylum-seekers are dragging out. At the same time, Chinese police are intensifying a crackdown on North Korean refugees in northeastern China.

A South Korean diplomat said the new group of North Koreans entered Seoul's mission in Beijing in the past several days, adding to the number of asylum-seekers already at the compound. The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said China will likely let most of the refugees leave the country.

But the embassy official said negotiations over their departure are dragging out, because Chinese police allege some of the refugees have committed crimes in China. The diplomat would not reveal the exact number of North Koreans now inside the South Korean mission.

Since March, dozens of North Koreans have sought asylum at diplomatic compounds in Beijing and other Chinese cities, despite increased security around embassies. The asylum-seekers are fleeing famine and repression in North Korea.

The human rights group, Amnesty International, says Chinese border police are trying to prevent further defections, with mass arrests of North Koreans living illegally in China.

Dominique Muller, a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said "the current increase in refugees seeking asylum in embassies and consulates in China is resulting in a massive crackdown in the border areas. And there have been reports of North Koreans being rounded up and sent forcibly back to North Korea."

Ms. Muller said 13 North Koreans detained in Inner Mongolia, in northeast China, are likely to be repatriated soon. She says a South Korean pastor, Chun Ki-won, has been fined and deported on charges of organizing the group to illegally enter China.

Ms. Muller warns that the refugees in Inner Mongolia could face harm if returned to North Korea. People who have been sent back are often subject to interrogation, they're often detained, they're sometimes tortured and ill-treated," she said. "Conditions in detention are often very, very poor. There's very little food. There's inadequate access to medical care."

Beijing has an agreement with ally Pyongyang to return asylum-seekers. But in recent months, it has allowed those who entered diplomatic missions to leave China for South Korea, via a third country.