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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 16:55 GMT 17:55 UK
China's asylum headache
Refugees trying to enter the consulate
Refugees ran into the Japanese embassy last week
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By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent in Beijing

Almost everyone who is old enough can remember the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989.

The whole communist edifice of Eastern Europe suddenly imploded as tens of thousands of East Germans streamed west.

But how many can remember how it all started?

North Korean refugee being detained outside the consulate
While some refugees have been caught, many others have been successful
Six months earlier small groups of East Germans, supposedly on holiday in Hungary, began slipping across the border in to the West. At first it was a trickle, but then it became a flood.

Memories of what happened in Central Europe in the summer of 1989 must be keeping Communist rulers awake this week, as they try desperately to halt the trickle of North Koreans attempting to climb the walls and rush the gates of foreign embassies in Beijing.

Asylum bids

In the past two months, nearly 40 North Koreans have succeeded in getting in to foreign embassies and consulates in Beijing and elsewhere to claim asylum.

There is nothing random about the asylum bids - they are part of a highly organised campaign by activists based in South Korea

In Beijing new barbed wire fences are going up around embassies considered a likely target for the asylum seekers. The number of armed guards has been doubled, maybe tripled. Some now carry baseball bats.

Planned campaign

All this for a few forlorn North Korean refugees - surely this is overkill?

Not in China's view. For one thing the North Koreans are not quite as forlorn as you might expect.

The asylum seekers are well dressed, well organised, and know exactly what they are doing.

There is nothing random about the asylum bids. They are part of a highly organised campaign by activists based in South Korea.

Their objective is to bring to the world's attention the plight of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees stranded in northeast China.

The collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989
The situation has parallels with the collapse of the Berlin wall
These people have fled famine, natural disasters and political repression. In China they live in fear, unable to work legally and denied any claim to refugee status. If they are caught, they are thrown back across the border to who knows what fate.

Highlighting the plight of these people is surely a noble cause. But the activists also have a broader aim, nothing short of bringing down the North Korean regime.

China's 'nightmare'

One activist recently told journalists in Beijing that the asylum bids are only the start, that there will be many more, and that eventually it will turn in to a flood, just as it did in East Germany.

That may be wishful thinking, but it is a scenario that gives China's leaders nightmares.

China and North Korea are no longer the cold war "brothers in arms" they once were. Many in China, including many high up in the communist party, are thoroughly tired of the bizarre antics of Kim Jong-il and his hermit kingdom.

But China is equally determined not to allow North Korea to collapse. China's leaders may feel some sentimental loyalty to the country for which hundreds of thousands of young Chinese men fought and died during the Korean War.

But far more importantly they fear the consequences of a collapse - millions of impoverished North Koreans flooding across the border in to northeast China.

They also fear North Korea's absorption by the South.

For 50 years the hardline Stalinist state has acted as a buffer between China and the tens of thousands of American troops stationed in South Korea.

The last thing China wants is American troops once again standing on the Yalu River looking straight across in to China.

See also:

13 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
Japan-China refugees row deepens
12 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
China asylum problem grows
11 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
China asylum row escalates
14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
N Koreans storm Spanish embassy
14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Koreans' embassy dash
03 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
'Record numbers' defect to S Korea
26 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
China's North Koreans in hiding
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