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Chinese Police Push S. Korean Envoys, Detain Asylum Seeker

By John Pomfret

Chinese police pushed and punched six South Korean diplomats in front of the South Korean consulate Thursday and dragged away a North Korean asylum seeker whose thirteen-year-old son made it to safety inside, witnesses said.

The scuffle, during which one South Korean diplomat was slugged in the mouth, marked a significant escalation of a simmering three-month-old crisis that began on March 14 when North Koreans, seeking food and protection, began breaking into diplomatic missions around China and demanding passage to South Korea.

The violence underscored the stakes in this standoff for Beijing, Pyongyang, Seoul, and the Korean peninsula as a whole.

All the players are aware that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe was precipitated when Hungary allowed tens of thousands of East German refugees to flow into the west in 1989, and none seems to support a similar change in North Korea. So far, China has allowed only 38 North Koreans to leave China for South Korea via third countries, so “the scale is vastly different” from what happened in Hungary, noted Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korean expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

“But the issue is the same,” he added. “North Korea’s government stays in power because it controls three things: movement, food, and ideas. If you lose control of people’s movement, you lose control of food and ideas as well.”

China in recent weeks has toughened its policy, moving from a nod and wink at the trickle of North Koreans leaving China to what seems to portend confrontation. The government in Beijing demanded for the first time on May 28 that South Korea turn over North Korean asylum-seekers harbored in its consulate.

At the same time, China wrapped its diplomatic districts with barbed wire and dotted them with roadblocks to prevent would-be asylum-seekers from getting into diplomatic compounds. But the number of asylum seekers in Beijing’s diplomatic missions nevertheless has grown.