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Tuesday, 14 May, 2002, 05:49 GMT 06:49 UK
China allows first refugees to leave
Three North Koreans given refugee passage to South Korea
The three men tried to avoid photographers
Three North Koreans who sought asylum in a US consulate in China have been flown to freedom in South Korea.

The three men, who climbed over the consulate wall in the north-eastern Chinese city of Shenyang last week, landed in Seoul having first been taken to Singapore.

North Korean asylum seekers
Three men sought refuge in US consulate in Shenyang
Five people removed from Japan's Shenyang consulate
Two people still in Canada's Beijing embassy
It was not clear if their release would alter the fate of another group of five North Korean refugee seekers who are at the centre of a diplomatic row between China and Japan.

Chinese police last week seized the five from Japan's consulate in Shenyang, prompting an angry war of words.

China claimed its police had permission to enter the diplomatic compound, but Japan denies this.

On Tuesday, Japan repeated its claim for China to hand the five back, and China repeated its refusal.

South Korea has offered the five asylum, and correspondents say one possible solution is for them to be sent there via a third country.

In a further case involving North Korean asylum seekers, the fate of a married couple who made it into Canada's embassy in Beijing is expected to be clear shortly after China announced their case had been "solved".

Diplomatic row

The row between Japan and China comes as the two countries prepare to mark the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

Chinese military police officers march near the US and Japanese embassies in Beijing
Despite tightened security, asylum seekers are still getting through
On Monday, Japan's Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said Chinese guards seized the five from inside Japan's consulate in Shenyang last Wednesday without permission, thereby breaking diplomatic conventions.

China claimed that a Japanese official had permitted its police to enter the embassy and had later thanked them for their presence.

Ms Kawaguchi was speaking after a team of Japanese diplomats sent to Shenyang to investigate the incident, completed its investigation.

"When the Chinese police entered the consulate, it's not true that the Japanese side gave consent," she said.

The incident triggered widespread concern in Japan after television pictures showed the asylum seekers, including a screaming toddler, attempting to reach sanctuary in the consulate before being dragged from the compound by Chinese police.

China has become increasingly worried about North Koreans seeking asylum through foreign offices in China.

In 2001 a North Korean family walked into the UN refugee agency in Beijing demanding asylum, and in March 2002, 25 North Koreans successfully entered the Spanish embassy in Beijing demanding political asylum in South Korea.

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes says that over the past two weeks China has gone to enormous lengths to try to prevent more North Korean asylum seekers from getting into foreign embassies.

Embassy compounds have been ringed with barbed-wire and surrounded by armed guards, some even wielding baseball bats.

Beijing regards the tens of thousands of impoverished North Koreans living in China as economic migrants who must be sent home.

But in recent cases, the asylum seekers were allowed to go to South Korea, perhaps prompting other groups to try similar tactics.

See also:

13 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
China's asylum headache
12 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
China asylum problem grows
11 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
China asylum row escalates
09 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
Japan-China spat over North Koreans
08 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
N Korean refugees held in China
14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
N Koreans storm Spanish embassy
13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
US offers N Korea 'unconditional' talks
26 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
China's North Koreans in hiding
03 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
'Record numbers' defect to S Korea
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