The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, has met with Chinese officials in Beijing and raised the issue of North Korean refugees. Despite international criticism, China continues to deport the North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, but, Mr. Guterres says there is hope that China may be on its way to changing its policy.

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Antonio Guterres, ended a three-day visit to China Thursday saying he held frank discussions with Chinese officials on a number of issues, including that of North Koreans who cross into China to flee poverty and oppression in their country.

China has come under international criticism for deporting the refugees, who often face severe punishment - including execution - when they return. Fearing an onslaught and possible destabilization of its border areas with North Korea, Beijing refuses to recognize the migrants as refugees and has ruled out asylum for them.

The United Nations has been criticized for not advocating more forcefully for the North Korean refugees in China.

But speaking to reporters Thursday, Guterres said he sees hope for progress after Chinese officials told him they are working on legislation for a new asylum system.

"One thing that is very important - and I'm saying it was in the very center of our debates here in Beijing - was the establishment of a Chinese asylum system in which, under Chinese law, these things can be entirely clarified," he said. "And that, in my opinion, will help a lot in the future development of the solutions to the problems like those we are facing."

Guterres says Chinese officials offered no details of a new law but told him it is on this year's agenda. The U.N. official said his agency is providing the Chinese with guidelines to help them formulate legislation that is compatible with international norms on the identification and treatment of refugees.

Human rights advocates say tens of thousands of North Koreans have fled conditions of extreme poverty and political repression in their homeland and crossed into China. Desperate not to be sent back, some have secured passage to third countries such as South Korea by forcing their way into foreign embassies in Beijing.