A U.S. official said the Bush administration is deeply concerned about the plight of North Korean refugees fleeing through China. He said he will raise those concerns when he meets with Chinese officials later this month.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy and Human Rights Lorne Craner said he hopes the countries involved will work to resolve the problem of North Korean refugees who flee their homeland. Mr. Craner told a Washington audience the Bush administration wants to use diplomacy to handle the problem before looking to stronger measures. He did not specify what those measures might be.

International groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have fled into China seeking food and better living conditions. China has allowed a few dozen North Koreans seeking asylum in western embassies to be transported to South Korea. Hundreds more have managed to find their own way to South Korea. But in general, Beijing's policy has been to capture North Koreans illegally in China and send them back to North Korea.

Assistant Secretary Craner said the United States is deeply concerned about people who flee in search of food and then are persecuted when they are returned to North Korea. He was asked why the United States has not put more pressure on China to protect the North Korean refugees.

"We have pushed this issue consistently with the Chinese government as part of our bilateral discussions. Our immediate concern is that China not return North Koreans against their will to face persecution," Mr. Craner said.

He said in two weeks, when he takes part in the annual U.S.-Chinese human-rights dialogue, he will press China on the North Korean refugee issue. He said China should work with the international community, especially the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, to ensure the rights of North Koreans are protected.

China has not allowed UNHCR teams to visit the area of China that borders North Korea. But Mr. Craner said China is beginning to understand the seriousness of the refugee problem. He said a solution must involve the government in Beijing.

Some refugees said many North Koreans, in particular those who converted to Christianity or who tried escaping more than once, have been executed upon their return home. One North Korean woman said babies born to repatriated refugees are killed because the fathers are believed to be Chinese. Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the South Korean government does not do enough to help North Korean refugees in China. He said South Korea's constitution considers all Koreans citizens of the Republic of Korea and the government in Seoul is therefore bound to help them.

Assistant Secretary Craner notes that South Korea holds a presidential election this month and he said he hopes the next South Korean government will do more to help the refugees.