N. Korean Refugees Storm China's Embassies

They are the 200,000-person problem in China's backyard.

For the past 50 years, China has been the uncertain gateway for North Korean refugees seeking passage to South Korea. The most recent strategy has the North Koreans trying to seek asylum in the foreign embassies of Beijing, an effort that echoes the East German refugees who flooded the West German embassy in Prague in the former Czechoslovakia just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Since March, residents say the once-sleepy row of embassies has been under siege. Dozens of refugees have scaled walls or found clever ways to sneak past Chinese police. One group of 25 even posed as tourists to gain admission to the Spanish embassy. Five have made their way into U.S. missions in the country.

China has been grating its teeth over the infractions. A week ago China released 26 refugees to South Korea — raising this year's total to more than 60 — but the country has showed signs that its patience is wearing thin.

No country has better relations with North Korea than China, but the nations have done little more to resolve their mutual problem than put up more barbed wire.

International Incidents

Enforcing its policy has been a political mess for the Chinese. Police caused an international flap in May when they chased a man into a Japanese mission, violating international law. Embassies are considered the sovereign territory of the flagged nation.

In another incident, television crews filmed Chinese police bloodying several diplomats as they dragged a man from a South Korean visa office. The episode prompted a response from the United States.

"We were appalled to find that the Chinese have apparently violated the diplomatic security of your embassy in Beijing, which seems to contravene all diplomatic etiquette," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said on South Korean television.

China called the incident "a pity" but defended its police.

Both the U.S. Senate and House have passed resolutions demanding that the Chinese government not return refugees to North Korea, where punishment means certain imprisonment, and possible execution. Last week lawmakers heard the testimony of a former refugee who said Chinese police trampled her while in their custody.

"Their stories won't let you sleep at night," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan, who held the hearings. "If you're in a position to help some of these people get out, and we are, and you are, I would think we really need to move with some speed and urgency."

Risks and Rewards

Storming embassies has proven to be a gamble with hefty consequences. Chinese officials last month issued a notice to diplomats saying that all embassy intruders should be turned over to police. The crackdown has also been reported in North Korea, leading some officials to conclude that the refugees' new strategy is backfiring.

"There's been an increase in political, and personal insecurity for those North Koreans that are living in China," said Hazel Smith of the U.S. Institute of Peace. "[Refugees] are now terribly worried that they're going to be not left alone in the way that they have been left alone in past, and sent back to North Korea to face the food shortage and, of course, all the political problems that they face when they go back."

Despite the concerns, Norbert Vollersten, a German doctor who helped organize the successful rush on the Spanish embassy, said he would continue to battle for the refugees.

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