China allows 5 seeking asylum to go to Seoul

N. Koreans sought refuge in Japanese consulate


BEIJING - The Chinese government quietly defused a bitter two-week row with Japan yesterday by allowing five detained North Korean asylum seekers to leave, bound for Seoul, South Korea.

The five, members of one family, had pushed through the gate of the Japanese consulate in the northeastern city of Shenyang on May 8 seeking a haven, but were removed from the premises and placed under detention by Chinese police.

Japan demanded an apology and said the Chinese did not have permission to enter; China refused, insisting its police officers had been invited.

The incident created a quandary for China, forcing it to chose between old allies and new: China is bound by agreements with North Korea to repatriate such illegal migrants, but it has faced international pressure from Japan, South Korea and almost all Western nations to accord the asylum seekers safe passage to Seoul.

Yesterday the Chinese government cast its lot with the latter in this highly visible case, allowing the group to board a commercial Chinese flight to the Philippines, accompanied by Chinese police officers. The Chinese were clearly hoping that this release would not encourage other asylum seekers or set a precedent, and they made no official announcement.

This week, Chinese officials have repeatedly said they would decide what to do with the family according to "international law" and in a "humanitarian spirit." But they have also reiterated China's longstanding position that the estimated 300,000 North Koreans who live illegally in China are economic migrants, not political refugees, and should be sent home if apprehended.

Although the Chinese government has generally tolerated the entry of the North Koreans - who arrive by wading across the river boundary from their isolated and deeply impoverished country - it also conducts occasional sweeps for illegal North Koreans, especially in the border area where most live.

Out of the international spotlight, many of those detained are sent back to North Korea where they are punished with prison or, sometimes, even death, refugees say.

Aid groups on the border say that Chinese searches and repatriations have increased drastically since small groups of North Koreans began seeking refuge in foreign diplomatic compounds here two months ago.

So far, the U.N. high commissioner on refugees has not given the North Koreans protected refugee status, which would make repatriation illegal under international treaties signed by China. But that is in part because the Chinese have never granted U.N. representatives permission to conduct interviews with the North Koreans.

The five who had sought refuge in the Japanese consulate were in many ways a poor test case on the issue since they are members of a well-known dissident family and would have clearly faced severe punishment if sent back.

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