HONG KONG -- It is the stuff of drama. Chinese policemen grabbed three North Koreans -- two women and a toddler -- who were trying to seek asylum in the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang in northeastern China last Wednesday, but not before the two men with them succeeded in reaching the diplomatic section. To the surprise of the North Koreans and Japanese diplomats, the Chinese policemen, without seeking permission, entered the consular premises and dragged away the two men.

The Chinese action ostensibly is a violation of international law, with the potential of precipitating a fresh crisis in Sino-Japanese relations, already strained by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visit last month to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

Japan protested, citing the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which stipulates: "The premises of the [diplomatic] mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving state may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission." China, however, cites the same convention, which provides that "the receiving state" has "a special duty . . . to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion."