Media reports in South Korea Tuesday said China might have repatriated the North Korean refugees who were arrested by Chinese police last month, as they got ready to seek asylum at foreign diplomatic facilities in Beijing.
China has been cracking down on what officials here say are smuggling operations that bring thousands of North Koreans on a treacherous journey from the North Korean border to Beijing.
At a regular briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue refused to comment on the latest deportation but reaffirmed China's resolve to repatriate illegal North Koreans and punish those who help them.
"Those who organize these activities and disrupt the social order of China, including causing harm and threat to foreign and Chinese staffers who work at foreign embassies, consulates and schools, will be punished severely," she said.
Analysts say China has been embarrassed by the recent spate of mass defections by North Koreans at foreign embassies and schools in the Chinese capital. Observers say Beijing sees the defections as an obstacle to Chinese diplomatic efforts to bring longtime ally North Korea back to nuclear negotiations - a process that has been stalled since June.
Three earlier rounds of talks including Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States have yielded no concrete results. A fourth round failed to take place as scheduled in September, with analysts predicting no further negotiations would happen until after the U.S. presidential election.
With the U.S. election out of the way, China has restarted those efforts and on Tuesday hosted a delegation headed by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il. The Chinese Foreign Ministry's Zhang Qiyue says Mr. Kim's meetings with Chinese officials are focusing on the nuclear issue.
"The two sides are carrying out discussions on how to further strengthen relations, friendship, and cooperation between China and North Korea, including how to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula," said Zhang Qiyue.
China is the main supplier of food and fuel to the impoverished Communist nation, and the United States and others have urged Beijing to use its influence to convince Pyongyang to return to negotiations table.
The matter has been pressing since 2002 when the United States said it had evidence North Korea had a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements. Since then North Korea has pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled U.N. monitors and restarted a nuclear facility it had promised to dismantle in 1994.