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South Korea Closes Consulate in Beijing

South Korea is calling on China to speed the passage of North Korean refugees. The call came Monday as South Korean diplomats announced they were closing the consular section of their embassy.

South Korean diplomats said the consulate in Beijing would remain closed indefinitely. One South Korean official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told VOA the consulate would close starting Tuesday in order to deal with what he said were more than 100 North Koreans who had taken refuge inside recently.

The official said the consulate has to provide the asylum seekers with food, clothing, and a place to sleep. He said the defectors are afraid to venture out into the street where Chinese police are under orders to arrest them, and possibly deport them to North Korea.

The diplomat said South Korea has petitioned the Chinese government to speed the process by which it grants authorization for North Koreans to leave Chinese territory and go to South Korea.

Chinese authorities conduct background checks on North Koreans before they can authorize passage. The clearance process can take weeks, or even months.

There was no immediate response from China to reports of South Korea's petition.

International humanitarian agencies say thousands of North Koreans cross the border into China each year to escape hunger and repression, taking refuge in embassies, including the South Korean embassy.

Kato Hiroshi, who heads the Tokyo-based group Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, says China's slow processing of exit permits for North Korean refugees is a reflection of Beijing's overall policy.

"China's government does not agree with, or does not admit the existence of, North Korean refugees," said Mr. Kato. "They officially comment only on their illegal stay or their illegal entry."

China, which is North Korea's closest ally, is preparing to broker another round of six-way talks aimed at getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program. Mr. Kato says allowing easy passage to North Korean defectors would anger Pyongyang at a time when China wants to keep relations good.

"China would like to keep its influence on North Korea," he said. "From that point of view, they will keep their card until the last moment. It is better [for the Chinese] to keep the card for negotiation and maintain a superior position."

Over the past two years, scores of North Koreans have forced their way into diplomatic compounds in China. In most cases, they have eventually been allowed to go to South Korea through third countries.