Twenty-five North Koreans burst into the Spanish embassy in Beijing yesterday, demanding asylum and passage to South Korea and throwing China into a potentially embarrassing diplomatic tangle.
The 25, who had escaped North Korea before only to be forced back by Chinese officials, threatened suicide if they were returned to their homeland again, the Tokyo-based Life Funds for North Korean Refugees said in a statement.
Chinese paramilitary guards grasped in vain at the group -- including six families plus two orphaned girls -- as they suddenly sprinted through the embassy gates and then waved and cheered for joy on the other side, witnesses said.
Dozens of armed police cordoned off the embassy on a quiet street in a leafy Beijing diplomatic quarter.
The dramatic asylum bid throws a spotlight on China's refusal to recognize as refugees tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding out on its northeastern borders with North Korea, which has suffered years of drought, floods and fierce winters.
"We are now at the point of such desperation and live in such fear of persecution within North Korea that we have come to the decision to risk our lives for freedom rather than passively await our doom," said the statement issued by the Tokyo group on behalf of the 25 asylum seekers.
"Some of us carry poison on our person to commit suicide if the Chinese authorities should choose once again to send us back to North Korea."
The North Korean embassy said it was looking into the case. South Korea urged China and Spain to resolve the incident "in accordance with humanitarian concerns."
In Madrid, a foreign ministry spokesman said Spain is negotiating with China over the fate of the North Koreans
"Our first priority is to avoid any incidents or violence and the second to resolve the problem via negotiation as soon as possible," he said.
He said granting the 25 asylum in Spain was unlikely. A possible solution would be for them to go to another country in the region.
Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said the most important thing was to find a humanitarian solution.
"These are people in a worrying situation who are making a series of requests. We'll see how far we can go," he said in an interview with Cadena Ser radio.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue (章啟月) said the 25 were not refugees but Beijing was negotiating a solution to the crisis.
"Upon initial examination, we found they are not refugees and our position on this is consistent and clear," Zhang said. "In the past the Chinese government dealt with similar events according to the law and also had our humanitarian considerations."
The plight of North Koreans in China was highlighted by a similar incident in June last year when a family of seven walked into the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing and demanded political asylum.
After several days of talks, China let them go to South Korea via Singapore and the Philippines on humanitarian grounds.
Diplomats said Beijing would probably follow a similar course this time, but was unlikely to change its tough policy on North Koreans in China, fearing a potential flood of refugees.
South Korean aid groups say that between 150,000 and 300,000 North Koreans are scattered in the hills of northeast China.
"There is no question of a refugee problem between the two countries," Zhang said. "We have treated these people kindly on humanitarian grounds. Any accusations against China's approach are totally unreasonable."