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Sunday, 23 June, 2002, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
China allows North Koreans to leave
Chinese police outside the Canadian embassy
Beijing has increased security outside foreign missions
Twenty-three North Koreans who were sheltering at South Korean missions in Beijing have now left China.

Their departure follows almost a month of negotiations between Chinese and South Korean diplomats.

Scuffle at South Korean embassy in Beijing
A North Korean arrested by Chinese police was also allowed to leave
Initially, China had demanded that the asylum-seekers be handed over for return to North Korea, saying they posed a security risk.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman confirmed the group had flown out of the country on Sunday evening.

"They have all left China," she said.

A spokesman for the South Korean foreign ministry said the North Koreans would fly to a third country before travelling on to South Korea.

Previously, North Korean asylum-seekers who were allowed to leave China have flown to the Philippines before quickly continuing on to South Korea.

Strained relations

Relations between Beijing and Seoul have been severely tested by the increasing number of North Koreans trying to gain asylum by entering foreign embassies in China.

China has a treaty with its North Korean ally requiring it to send refugees back to the hardline communist state.

The first of 21 asylum-seekers entered the South Korean visa office on 23 May and others followed alone or in small groups, despite a heavy Chinese security presence. Two others managed to enter the South Korean embassy.

South Korean official in Beijing
South Korean embassy officials were roughed up in the struggle
A North Korean man who was taken into custody by Chinese authorities after being dragged out of the visa office on 13 June - and whose son was inside the visa office - has also been allowed to leave. That incident triggered a protest from South Korea.

News that the asylum-seekers would be allowed to leave came in a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry earlier on Sunday.

It said the North Koreans would be allowed to depart after authorities had verified their identities and ensured none had committed crimes within China.

South Korea "fully understood and accepted" China's demand that diplomatic offices should not be used as a channel for illegal immigration, the statement said.

Beijing's ally

In another development, two North Korean men who entered the Canadian embassy in Beijing earlier this month seeking asylum left China on Sunday, an embassy spokeswoman said.

At least 38 North Koreans fleeing starvation and repression at home have been allowed by China to leave for the South 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.

But Beijing appeared to take a harder line on those inside the South Korean offices.

Seoul, facing domestic political pressure over the highly charged issue of North Korean refugees, refused to hand any over without a promise that they would not be returned to North Korea.

Beijing's announcement followed talks on the issue between Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and his South Korean counterpart Choi Sung-hong in Thailand.

On Friday, China had appeared to soften its line by saying that a pregnant woman among the group of North Koreans might be allowed to leave.


Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

TALKING POINT
See also:

20 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
14 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
25 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
18 May 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
13 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
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