China, Japan In Diplomatic Row Over N. Korean Defectors

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Japan has accused China of violating international conventions by entering a Japanese diplomatic mission to remove two North Koreans apparently seeking asylum.

Tokyo urged Beijing to hand over the North Koreans, and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said he expected a "sincere response" to the request.

Wednesday's incident, which occurred at the Japanese Consulate in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang, is the latest in a string of embarrassments for China involving North Koreans desperate for a new life in democratic South Korea or the West.

In a highly-publicized case last March 25, North Koreans who made it into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing were eventually allowed to fly to South Korea, their desired destination.

That incident and others involving smaller numbers of asylum-seekers at the U.S. and German embassies prompted China to clamp down on non-governmental organizations suspected of helping the North Koreans make their bids for freedom.

Church groups reported a surge in the number of North Koreans being arrested by police in northeast China, aided by North Korean security agents.

Beijing also increased security in embassy districts, sealing off roads and installing barbed wire fences.

The measures have not been wholly successful, however. On the same day as the incident at the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang, two North Koreans climbed a wall and entered the U.S. Consulate in the same city, with a third man following suit the next day.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate said by phone Friday that U.S. officials were negotiating with the Chinese authorities to resolve the matter. She confirmed that the three North Koreans remained in the consulate and were doing well.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a press briefing "our view has consistently been and remains that we don't believe that North Koreans should be returned to face persecution in North Korea."

Boucher declined to comment on the claimed Chinese violation of extraterritorial territory at the Japanese Consulate.

China has long been seen as the closest ally of the reclusive communist regime in Pyongyang and is obliged by treaty to repatriate North Koreans who cross into its territory.

Aid agencies say there are hundreds of thousands of North Koreans illegally in China, trying to get away from some of the harshest socio-economic and political conditions in the world.

'Violation of convention'

In Wednesday's episode, five members of the same North Korean family entered the Japanese Consulate compound. Two men managed to get into the building, but video footage shows Chinese police succeeded in pulling the other three - two women and a toddler - back through the gate.

Japan says police then entered the consulate building itself and, despite protests from staff, dragged the two men away.

Koizumi charged the entry had violated the 1961 Vienna Convention regarding which premises of diplomatic missions are "inviolable." Officials of the host state may enter them only with the permission of the head of the embassy or consulate.

Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman, citing the same convention, said China had the responsibility to protect foreign missions from intrusions.

China's Ambassador to Tokyo, Wu Dawei, who was summoned to the Japanese Foreign Ministry for a reprimand, also said the police had no agenda other than to protect the consulate from suspicious individuals.

But Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi rejected the explanation, demanding that Japanese officials be allowed to interview the five.

Japanese government spokesman Kosei Ueno said at a press conference consulate staff could and should have taken firmer action - beyond merely protesting - when the Chinese police entered.

The diplomatic row remained unresolved Friday, with Japanese officials quoted as saying any damage to bilateral ties would depend on Beijing's response to Tokyo's demands.

For its part, the South Korean government is caught between domestic pressure to be more proactive in its treatment of the refugee issue, and concerns about setting back rapprochement efforts with the North.

The Foreign Ministry in Seoul urged China Thursday to "handle the problem in a humanitarian way."

Meanwhile, bipartisan House of Representatives International Relations Committee members sent a letter to the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. urging Beijing not to repatriate North Koreans seeking asylum at Western missions.

"'We strongly urge your government not to forcibly return any of them to North Korea, where they would face certain danger," they wrote, adding that those who are repatriated to North Korea are "usually executed or sent to camps for political prisoners."

During a visit to South Korea last January, members of the International Relations Committee met with North Korean defectors who told them of human rights abuses in their homeland.

The Korean peninsula has been split between the prosperous, democratic South and the cash-strapped, totalitarian North since the 1950-53 Korean War. As many as seven million Koreans are believed to be divided from family members by the world's most heavily-guarded border.

E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow