29 escapees from North seek refuge at school in Beijing

Compiled From Kyodo, AP

BEIJING — Twenty-nine people believed to be North Korean entered the Japanese school in Beijing on Wednesday morning to seek asylum in a country other than China, according to Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo.

The ministry said the group, the largest yet to seek asylum at a foreign mission or institution in Beijing, entered the school, which has 495 students, just as a back-to-school ceremony was ending around 10:30 a.m.

The 29 — 11 men, 15 women and three children — were taken to the Japanese Embassy for identification and questioning, officials said in Tokyo.

The asylum-seekers were most likely North Koreans, a Foreign Ministry official said, adding that nothing has been decided about their situation, including their request for asylum as well as where they would stay Wednesday night.

Ministry sources said the 29 conveyed their desire to go to South Korea. The request that was promptly conveyed to Seoul.

South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade official Park Joon Woo was quoted by Yonhap News Agency as saying his country will accept the 29 if they seek asylum in South Korea.

Park, director general of the ministry’s Asia-Pacific Affairs Bureau, also called on China to treat them humanely and help them come to South Korea if they so desire.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence, “I would like to hear what they have to say and will handle the issue in a humanitarian way.”

He said the incident will not affect bilateral talks between Japan and North Korea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement saying police were investigating the matter. The same school was entered by four North Korean asylum-seekers in February. The four eventually left China for South Korea via Singapore.

One of the women in Wednesday’s group slightly injured herself on broken glass while trying to get into the school, the official said.

A school official and the ministry official said the 29 were transferred to the embassy shortly after noon, after the pupils were told to remain in their classrooms, curtains were drawn and doors were locked.

The schoolchildren were allowed to return home after the 29 left the building.

The asylum-seekers apparently came onto the school grounds through a hole cut through a wire fence surrounding the compound. The hole leads onto an outdoor basketball court and from there to the school building. Security guards tried to stop them but they managed to enter the building.

A stepladder, chairs and wire cutters were found near the hole in the fence, a Kyodo News reporter at the school said.

Principal Hiroshi Takahashi told a news conference later in the day that he witnessed the scene from the entrance to the school building.

“To be honest, I was surprised to see so many,” he said.

He said the safety of the students was never at risk, and that the school followed the steps in an emergency manual drawn up for such events.

Few other details about the situation were immediately known, but it is not uncommon for North Koreans who have fled to China from their country due to economic difficulty and repression to seek safety inside foreign missions or schools in Beijing in the hope of being accepted as refugees and sent to other countries, usually South Korea.

China is inclined to send asylum-seekers back to North Korea if they are caught before reaching a foreign sanctuary.

Sources familiar with the situation surrounding North Korean escapees said the large number who sought refuge at the school is an indication that these people are now receiving systematic assistance.