A group of people believed to be North Koreans reportedly attempted to seek refuge today inside China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing. Instead, they were arrested and charged with holding an illegal protest

A South Korean diplomat says seven North Koreans seeking political asylum tried to enter the Chinese Foreign Ministry compound here on Monday afternoon. The diplomat, who asked not to be identified, also says the group was carrying signs reading "Recognize North Korean defectors as refugees," and "Give us freedom."

The Foreign Ministry refuses to confirm that the seven were North Koreans or that they were seeking refuge. In a statement faxed to reporters Monday, a Chinese government spokesman said only that police arrested some people of unknown origin, and their identity is being investigated.

The statement says the people did not apply for permission from Beijing's Security Bureau to hold a demonstration. It says they are therefore in violation of China's laws on protests and assembly, and will be dealt with accordingly.

Dozens of North Koreans have successfully sought asylum at foreign diplomatic missions in Beijing and other Chinese cities this year, and the Chinese have allowed most of these defectors to leave for South Korea via a third country. Monday's action is believed to be the first time North Koreans have applied for asylum directly from the Chinese government.

A refugee aid group in Seoul, Good Friends, says Monday's request for refuge reveals the desperation of many North Korean refugees in China.

"They're trying everything to escape from this agonizing situation in China," said Erica Kang, a coordinator for the group. "For six or seven years, it's been going on like this. It's heading towards a long-term refugee situation, where there is no temporary shelter, there's no temporary permission to stay in China."

Ms. Kang says tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled to neighboring China to escape hunger and persecution. But China and North Korea are allies, and Beijing is required by treaty to send North Korean asylum seekers back home. The Chinese government officially classifies North Koreans who illegally cross the border into China as economic migrants, not refugees.

The surge of asylum-seekers has caused China considerable embarrassment this year, and diplomatic disputes with several countries. The government has responded by placing more armed guards outside foreign embassies and consulates, and surrounding the buildings with barbed wire fences.