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44 Apparent N. Korean Asylum Seekers Enter Canadian Embassy in Beijing  - 2004-09-29

Diplomats in Beijing say at least 44 people claiming to be North Koreans have stormed the Canadian embassy in an apparent bid for asylum.

Witnesses said men, women and children used ladders to scale the spiked fence of the Canadian embassy compound in Beijing. Shortly after, Canadian ambassador Joseph Caron came out to the street and told reporters his staff was interviewing members of the group.

"We are in the process of speaking to determine who they are and what they expect of us," said Ambassador Caron.

The Canadian official said the group includes at least some North Koreans, and that his government is in contact with the Chinese authorities about the situation.

The incident is the latest in a spate of attempts by North Koreans to seek asylum at foreign missions in the Chinese capital. Earlier this month, 29 people claiming to be North Koreans entered a Japanese school.

Thousands flee North Korea every year to escape poverty and repression in their homeland.

China regards North Korean asylum seekers as illegal migrants, not refugees. Under an agreement with Pyongyang, China routinely repatriates them but has on some occasions granted them transit visas. North Koreans claiming asylum in China are often seeking passage to a third country, usually South Korea.

The latest apparent mass defection came amid China's continued push for more negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear programs.

Chinese officials told Japanese media this week that they had invited a senior North Korean official to Beijing next month to discuss a possible new round of talks that would also include South Korea, Russia, Japan and the United States.

North Korea had earlier agreed to attend a fourth round by the end of September, but later refused after South Korean scientists admitted they had conducted illegal nuclear experiments decades ago.