- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

BEIJING Welders are installing rows of spikes on wrought-iron fences around diplomatic missions to keep out a growing flood of North Korean refugees seeking asylum in Beijing's foreign embassies.

Barbed wire catches on the loose clothing of passers-by and blocks sidewalks, forcing pedestrians onto streets. China's efforts have given Beijing's diplomatic district the feel of a tree-lined, wide-boulevarded prisoner-of-war camp full of jittery paramilitaries with truncheons at the ready.

While Western foreigners are widely ignored, anyone Asian is routinely stopped, searched, questioned or worse. One overseas Chinese man who rode his bicycle on a closed street last month was beaten by a paramilitary officer as another watched.

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Interdiction of North Korean asylum seekers is a high diplomatic priority for the Chinese government. North Korea counts China as its only major ally, and Beijing has signed a treaty with Pyongyang that requires it to repatriate any North Korean citizens caught in China.

But since March, when 25 North Koreans entered the German Embassy in Beijing and were permitted to leave and make their way to South Korea, China has ignored its treaty in cases that become public.

Rights groups say North Koreans, if returned, would face imprisonment and torture.

"It is the final crackdown of a dictatorship," said Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor and activist who has encouraged the embassy incursions.

"History has proved that every society which has to protect something with barbed wire will finally collapse. The same will happen to the government in China and North Korea."

China says the measures are simply part of its obligation to protect embassies.

"Based on the current security situation and the demand of some foreign embassies in China, relevant departments have taken corresponding measures to strengthen security work," the Foreign Ministry said in response to a faxed list of questions.

Asked specifically whether the increased security was related to the North Koreans, the ministry wouldn't answer. In June, though, the government issued letters telling foreign embassies that they were required to hand over asylum seekers.

The fortress feel of a neighborhood thick with foreigners is an odd sight for a country newly admitted to the World Trade Organization, looking ahead to the 2008 Olympics and eager to cultivate a smooth international image.

"It would tend to reinforce to Westerners the somewhat outdated but still vivid Tiananmen Square imagery of 'China as police state' not the image China wants to project," said Greg Moore, a China specialist at the University of Denver in Colorado.

Things are calming a bit.

Night maneuvers common in May and June with members of the paramilitary People's Armed Police running up and down the streets at midnight shouting and sometimes toting automatic weapons have ebbed.

Last weekend, with no recent incursions, the government took small steps away from red alert. It removed some barbed wire and painted other sections green to blend with tree-lined streets. At least three roads reopened, though others remained blocked and heavily guarded.

"For Beijing's leaders, to avoid diplomatic nightmare is [of] more immediate concern than its long-term image," said Sam Suisheng Zhao, editor of the University of Denver-based Journal of Contemporary China.

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