While regional powers try to entice North Korea back to nuclear negotiations, much lower-profile talks are under way on a problem that could spark a crisis as momentous as any over Pyongyang's atomic ambitions.
When East Germany collapsed in 1989 to 1990 it was at least in part because thousands had emigrated through the by-then porous border between reformist Hungary and the West. The exodus fatally sapped East Berlin's legitimacy and its workforce.
Few see such a scenario unfolding any time soon in northeast China -- where up to 300,000 North Koreans are hiding after crossing from their impoverished homeland. More than 100 more are holed up in the South Korean consulate in Beijing.
But the potential is clearly there, political analysts say, and China -- which views the refugees as illegal immigrants -- and North Korea are fully aware of it. Anti-North activists are eager to precipitate precisely such an exodus.
"China will become the Hungary of the Far East, creating the silent, peaceful collapse of North Korea in a face-saving way," said Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor-turned activist who was visiting Washington this week.
Beijing is unlikely to want to change the status quo, even if it is irritated by North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship. North Korea has yet to agree to a second round of six-way atomic talks.
Yet even before the first round of those nuclear talks in Beijing, China had talked to the US about refugees.
A senior US official, Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Dewey, said on Oct. 2 the US was trying to negotiate a deal with China on resettling some of the refugees.
"For reasons you can understand, I can't go into more detail," he said. Dewey heads the State Department's bureau of population, refugees and migration.
"We will be ready to do our part to solve that problem if it is possible," said Dewey. "If we had a breakthrough, the numbers [coming to the US] would be small at first."
Last year, about 1,140 North Koreans reached the South, some by seeking refuge in diplomatic missions in China.
By August this year, 780 had come South, where they qualify for citizenship.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed in a faxed statement that Dewey had met Shen Guofang, an assistant to the foreign minister, on Aug. 11. The US side raised the problem of North Koreans in China, it said.
"We believe the North Koreans who have illegally entered China in recent years are illegal immigrants, not refugees," the statement said. "We will treat the issue according to domestic law, international law and with a humanitarian spirit."
A State Department official said Dewey had nothing further related to the refugees in his schedule "at this time." South Korean officials declined to comment on the subject -- Seoul shudders at the thought of a refugee flood.
Political analysts said China was unlikely to change its mind for fear of offending North Korea but also for its own security and to try to avoid increasing the flow of people.
Shi Yinhong, an expert on international relations at the People's University in Beijing, said he felt there was no possibility China would agree to grant the North Koreans refugee status for fear of offending Pyongyang just as it is trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
"China is suspicious that the US wants to make this kind of refugee arrangement as a way to promote the collapse of the Pyongyang regime," he said, noting the East European parallel.
Yu Suk-ryul of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security thinktank in Seoul said US-Chinese talks were a long way from reaching any kind of agreement on the refugees.
But he said any deal could have far-reaching implications: "The same thing may happen as the exodus of East Germans."
While some East Germans risked death to escape over the Berlin Wall, few North Koreans have made it through the mined and guarded Demilitarized Zone bisecting the Korean Peninsula.
But even that border is no longer impervious now rail and road links are being forged, prompting Pyongyang to bolster its defenses there.
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