Asia's new rift: asylum seekers

Tension intensified yesterday, as Tokyo demanded the return of North Koreans from China.

Chinese troops are unrolling barbed wire around the embassies of Beijing – as diplomatic tensions rise in East Asia.

The general cause: Nearly 12 months of sporadic defections by North Korean refugees into embassies and consulates in China.

Tensions heightened last week after Japan sent deputy foreign minister Seiken Sugiura to investigate an incident in which Chinese officials dragged North Korean asylum seekers out of the Japanese consulate in the northeastern city of Shenyang. Tokyo is demanding an apology and the return of the refugees, but China is refusing to do either. China says its police were invited into the consulate.

"In the past few days, Japan has neglected basic objective facts and put forward some unreasonable criticism and demands, harming China's international image," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said at a news conference this week.

China insists it acted in accordance with the Vienna Convention's rules on diplomacy, which treat embassy land as sovereign territory.

The latest incident may be stoking latent tensions between Asia's two biggest powers and dragging South Korea into the middle of the spat for its failure to aid thousands of North Korean refugees. The most recent rush by asylum seekers is just one of several similar publicity stunts designed to embarrass the South Korean government for its largely failed "sunshine policy" of openness toward North Korea.

German doctor Norbert Vollertsen, a controversial figure who spent 18 months as an aid worker in North Korea, is one of the main organizers of the refugees' embassy rushes, which some see as a means to pressure South Korean President Kim Dae Jung into dealing more directly with the refugee issue.

Earlier this week, Dr. Vollertsen announced plans to send thousands of refugees to South Korea by boat as the country hosts the World Cup soccer matches.

"We will try to create pressure on the South Korean government and maybe some others," he said Monday in Seoul.

For Mr. Kim, the problem is sticky. He has been loath to jeopardize his dream of a lasting détente with the North – by aiding the 150,000 or more North Korean refugees in China. Those refugees are turned away by South Korean diplomats in China and advised to try to make their way to a third country. South Korea also does not want to antagonize China, a key diplomatic and economic partner. China has previously helped the refugees by quietly ignoring their presence or treating them as economic migrants, not refugees.

The issue is also one on which Tokyo is staking out high moral ground.

For years Japan has shown little interest in either the refugees from the North, or South Korea's sunshine policy. But this year, China and Japan are celebrating the 30th anniversary of normalized relations, a marker accompanied by high-level exchanges and protestations of undying amity. But the Shenyang incident is showing that, closer to home, both sides are quite willing to throw mud at each other. The mainland media, aside from China Daily, have kept quiet about the Shenyang incident. Instead, media have reverted to stoking public anger about Japan's record of occupation of East Asia during World War II. The subject is a perennial one, and a favorite topic is Japan's reluctance to adequately acknowledge guilt for such crimes as the massacre of more than 200,000 civilians in Nanjing.

As Japan's economy remains mired in an unending stagnation, some Japanese are not just concerned with the past but also with the future. While China is becoming their largest trading partner and an economic power in its own right, some Japanese are worried.

In Tokyo, a senior Japanese ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker, Takami Eto, is demanding an end to bilateral aid to China.

"China is extending economic assistance to Southeast Asia and Africa and expanding its [own] military," he said to a meeting of his faction members, according to the Kyodo news agency. "We do not have to continue to give such a country overseas development assistance. We don't have to curry favor with it."

The Shenyang incident may also offer Tokyo a way to show it can stand firm, too, especially on matters of sovereignty.

Six months ago, mutual suspicions flared up in another diplomatic squabble when the Japanese Navy sunk a vessel suspected of being a North Korean spy ship. China objected to Japanese efforts to raise the vessel, saying the vessel lay in Chinese territorial waters. The two sides resolved their differences but North Korea, along with Taiwan, remain the chief cockpit of regional rivalries.

All players – Japan, South Korea, the US, and China – differ significantly over how to deal with the central problem: North Korea.

Kim is disappointed by Japan's reluctance to engage with Pyongyang and support his sunshine policy. Beijing and Washington also differ on North Korea, with the Chinese supporting President Kim's soft approach, and expressing doubts about a tough line taken by President George Bush in his "axis of evil" speech.

Diplomats in Beijing are now waiting to see what the Chinese government does next about the refugees. So far it has allowed third countries to move the asylum seekers quickly out of the country to the Philippines and on to South Korea. Now, it may act differently. Two North Koreans who sought refuge in the Canadian Embassy have been allowed to leave via Singapore.

Some experts think China will now take more vigorous steps to hunt down and expel other North Koreans in the country and to seal the border with the North.

"China is going to stick with its North Korean ally on this one," says one Asian diplomat who requested anonymity.

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