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S. Korea Re-Opens Consulate in Beijing

South Korea has re-opened its consulate in Beijing, after Chinese authorities granted passage to a group of North Korean refugees holed up inside. The refugees were allowed to travel from Beijing to Seoul on Sunday.

South Korea closed the consular section of its embassy in Beijing on October 7 to protest what officials said was China's slow processing of transit visas for 21 North Korean refugees sheltering in the consulate building.

Chinese authorities cleared their passage and the refugees arrived in Seoul on Sunday. South Korea has reopened its consulate.

A South Korean diplomat told VOA on the condition of anonymity that Chinese officials answered their complaints and sped up the processing of exit permits in the past few days. The official says some refugees are still inside the consulate, but in fewer numbers than before.

Witnesses at the consulate say North Korean refugees have been entering the complex at a rate of about two a day. Fearing arrest by Chinese police, the North Koreans take refuge in the South Korean consulate, where embassy employees, despite the lack of facilities, provide them with food and a place to sleep.

Thousands of North Koreans cross the border into China each year, escaping famine and repression at home. China, North Korea's closest ally, refuses to acknowledge their status as refugees, and instead refers to them as migrants.

Kato Hiroshi heads the Tokyo-based group Life Funds for North Korean Refugees. He says that by speeding up the transit process, China has chosen to resolve the dispute with South Korea graciously.

"I think that if the Chinese authorities kept the old speed of processing the North Koreans' exits, it would have had a bad effect on China's relationship with South Korea …," he said "I think it was necessary for the Chinese to show their effort to solve this case in a more friendly [manner] and more cooperatively."

China has been eager to maintain good relations with both Koreas as it delicately works to arrange another round of six-way talks to end the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Chinese authorities routinely arrest North Korean refugees and send them home. But scores of them manage to force their way into diplomatic missions in China. In most cases, they have been allowed to go on to South Korea via a third country.