Continued from page 1

Officials at the Chinese Embassy, walled off from the protest by a line of tightly parked riot police buses, made no response. An embassy staffer said he did not know anyone in the building who could answer media questions.

In Beijing, China rebuffed South Korean calls for leniency.

“The relevant people entered China illegally due to economic reasons,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman told AFP. “They are not within the category of refugees.”

He added that the issue does not fall under the relevant U.N. mechanism.

There is fear in South Korea that those returned to North Korea will face severe punishment.

“We cannot say with absolute certainty what their fate will be, but definitely, since the death of Kim Jong-il, the message is that punishment for defectors is extremely harsh,” said Tim Peters, a U.S. human rights activist who operates along the China-North Korea border.

“I don’t want to say all will be shot, but the consequences are graver now than they were three or four years ago.”