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2 North Koreans Seek Asylum at U.S. Embassy in Beijing

April 27, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT and HENRY CHU and BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING — Two North Korean defectors jumped the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday and appealed for asylum in South Korea, the first time North Koreans have sought refuge inside the American compound, U.S. officials said.

The men, described as brothers and laborers in their 20s, spent the day holed up in the compound as U.S. and Chinese officials negotiated an agreement allowing them to leave rather than be returned to North Korea. A U.S. official in Seoul said the defectors left the embassy this morning for Singapore and were expected to fly Sunday to South Korea.

"They were accepted for resettlement," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. "We appreciate the Chinese government's constructive response."

Another American official said it was the first time that North Koreans had sought asylum at the U.S. Embassy but that it was not unexpected given the recent surge in defections in the Chinese capital. He requested anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

The defections came on the eve of a visit to the United States by Hu Jintao, China's vice president and the man expected to become president when Jiang Zemin steps down next year.

Hu is expected to arrive in Hawaii today and then fly to New York. On Tuesday and Wednesday, he is scheduled to be in Washington, where he will meet with President Bush and other top administration officials. He then will spend two days in San Francisco.

In Seoul, political activists said other defections are underway at embassies in Beijing and elsewhere in Asia to bring attention to the plight of North Korean refugees.

"There is a huge operation underway. It is all a bit secret, but I can tell you that defectors are going to Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia," said Norbert Vollertsen, a German physician and activist who has been helping North Koreans defect. He said that Christian missionaries and refugee advocates were providing logistical support and funds but that some of the defectors were acting on their own.

Dozens of North Koreans have sought refuge in European embassies here in the last several weeks. The defections create a dilemma for China because a treaty with its Communist ally stipulates that all North Koreans who flee across the border will be returned.

To save face, China has made the defectors leave for other countries, from which many then fly to South Korea.

In the most publicized incident, 25 North Koreans stormed into the Spanish Embassy last month and asked for asylum. The next day, they were flown to the Philippines and on to South Korea.

On Thursday, a North Korean managed to get inside the German Embassy, where he asked for asylum and help in getting to South Korea. One report said he hopped the wall. Philippine officials said today that they had agreed to allow him to pass through Manila on his way to South Korea.

In recent years, thousands of North Koreans have sneaked across the Chinese border to escape political repression, famine and economic devastation. Hundreds of thousands are believed to be living in China. Some have been caught and sent back to North Korea and have reportedly ended up in labor camps.

"The Chinese are still taking a tough line with [those] they catch, but if [the defectors] get into embassies, they tend to let them go," a senior U.S. official said.

After the defections to the U.S. Embassy, China's public security bureau tightened measures at the mission. The compound includes the residence of Ambassador Clark Randt and a building housing cultural attaches and other officials.

*

Wright reported from Washington, Chu from Beijing and Demick from Seoul.

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