China is demanding that Seoul hand over three North Koreans seeking asylum at the South Korean mission in Beijing. China is taking a tougher stance in the face of a growing problem of illegal North Korean immigrants seeking asylum at diplomatic offices in Beijing.

Beijing has refused to negotiate with Seoul over the fate of three North Koreans, who sought refuge at the South Korean Embassy here last week. One man entered the South Korean consular section last Thursday, and a couple sought refuge there on Friday.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan talked with reporters about the issue in Beijing Tuesday. "According to international and Chinese law, foreign diplomatic missions have no right to grant asylum to people from a third country," said Mr. Kong, urging "the South Korean Embassy to hand over the people in question."

This decision contrasts with China's flexibility toward other North Koreans seeking asylum recently.

Since last year, dozens of North Koreans have sought asylum at diplomatic offices in Beijing. Beijing has an agreement with its ally, Pyongyang, to return North Koreans illegally crossing the border. But there are tens of thousands of North Koreans believed to be hiding in China, fleeing famine and persecution at home.

Until now, all cases have been resolved by China, allowing the North Koreans to fly to a third country on their way to permanent refuge in South Korea. But this is the first confirmed case of North Koreans seeking asylum directly at Seoul's mission in China.

A South Korean diplomat says Beijing will not hold talks on the issue until the North Koreans are handed over to Chinese police for an identity check. He says Seoul has agreed to allow police into the embassy to meet with the North Koreans, but China has rejected that offer.

The diplomat says the impasse with China could drag into the start of the World Cup soccer finals, which begin Friday in Seoul.

Some refugee activists have pledged to arrange mass defections of North Koreans from China during the World Cup games, which are attracting global media attention.

China has qualified for the World Cup this year for the first time. Some 25,000 Chinese fans are expected to travel to co-host South Korea to attend the games.