|June 25, 2002||atimes.com|
Asylum row over - for now
SEOUL - China has allowed 23 North Korean defectors who had taken refuge in the South Korean Embassy in Beijing to be sent to South Korea through a third country, plus a fourth man who had been dragged out of the embassy by Chinese security personnel.
The 24 arrived in South Korea on Monday morning on a flight from Bangkok, while two other North Koreans who had taken refuge in the Canadian Embassy in Beijing also were allowed to fly to South Korea via Singapore. They had been holed up since June 8.
A joint statement released concurrently in Seoul and Beijing ended a 10-day diplomatic row over a scuffle in which Chinese security officials entered the South Korean Embassy site on June 13 to drag out a North Korean defector.
In the statement, both sides expressed regret that Chinese security officers intruded on the South Korean Embassy and assaulted Korean diplomats in the course of forcing a North Korean defector out of the embassy. The Chinese side also agreed to permit the North Korean defector in question to join 23 others flying to Seoul via Thailand.
The 26 North Korean defectors were allowed to get on flights to Bangkok and Singapore and to fly to Incheon early on Monday. A South Korean official said that the Beijing government had dropped its insistence that embassy officials hand the North Koreans over to the Chinese side for transfer to the airport.
The Chinese side said in the statement that it will solve the North Korean defector issue "in accordance with the domestic and international laws and the principle of humanitarianism". But Beijing fell short of apologizing for the intrusion into the South Korean Embassy by Chinese security officers, pledging instead to punish those responsible for the incident and promising not to repeat that kind of incident.
In the statement, South Korea said it also regretted the incident and expressed understanding of China's positon that diplomatic missions should not serve as the passage for North Korean defectors seeking asylum abroad.
"The Chinese side expressed regret over the intrusion into our embassy and we regretted [it] from a moral point of view," another Korean official said. "We've reached the agreement because we thought that the incident should not undermine the future-oriented Sino-Korea relations. We, however, will have to protect any North Korean defectors if they seek asylum in our embassy, although we understand China's position that embassies should not be used as an exit channel for North Korean defectors."
Political analysts here criticized Seoul's expression of understanding of China's position, saying it should be seen as a makeshift measure to put an end to the thorny diplomatic issue. Critics fear that violation of South Korean missions and assault on Korean diplomats by Chinese security officials could take place again.
At least 38 North Koreans fleeing starvation and repression at home have been allowed by China to leave for South Korea after seeking refuge in other foreign embassies or consulates. They included a family of five who were held by police after bring dragged out of a Japanese consulate.
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