July 6, 2002 -- 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.
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.
"We are preparing the next operation," Vollersten said. "You can imagine that we will try to get 150 refugees."
From the perspectives of the North Korean refugee, the risk is worth the reward. Communication from inside the country is limited, but what reports there are paint a picture of a blighted nation scavenging for food. Since the mid-1990s, officials estimate that about 2 million North Koreans have starved to death, due in part to bad weather and in part to a poor economy.
"People are hurting," said Gerald Bourke, a U.N. official with the World Food Program. "What I saw, for example, was people of all ages going up into the hillsides collecting grass, people on the beaches and seashore gathering seaweed. I have never seen that anywhere else. It's tragic. It's extremely saddening."
"It's very real, and I've been there. There is a food shortage there caused by the famine. There's also a tremendous shortage of medicine. But I think we need to remind ourselves that the wheels of change move slowly" said Larry Jones, founder of Feed the Children, a nonprofit that combats world hunger.
China insists that the North Koreans are not fit for recognition. Instead, the country argues that the North Koreans are economic rather than political refugees, and therefore not eligible for asylum. However, analysts say the distinction is difficult.
"There is no difference between [the] North Korean state and its economy," said Marcus Noland of the Institute for International Economics. "It's hard to separate out how much of the motivation of people fleeing North Korea is purely economic and how much of it is the unparalleled degree of political repression that exists in that country."
ABCNEWS' Josh Gerstein and John Donvan contributed to this report.