HONG KONG — China’s decision to allow five North Koreans who sought asylum in the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang to go to Seoul via Manila reflects the delicate balancing act Beijing must perform in managing its relationship with North Korea, its longtime communist ally, and South Korea, its newfound friend and trading partner of the last decade.

It is extremely awkward for China to be in the position of having to choose between Pyongyang and Seoul. But last week, once again, it chose to let asylum seekers in highly publicized cases go to South Korea rather than send them back to North Korea, despite an agreement between Beijing and Pyongyang that illegal immigrants should be returned to their home country.

The saga of North Korean asylum seekers making their way first to China, gaining entry into foreign diplomatic premises, then being allowed to go to a third country before making their way to South Korea has gone on for many months now, beginning with seven members of a North Korean family who sought refuge in a United Nations office in Beijing last year.

The largest number was a group of 25 who sought refuge in the Spanish embassy in March, who were allowed by China to go to the Philippines before heading for South Korea. All these groups were only allowed by China to go to South Korea via a third country, presumably to soften the blow on Pyongyang. North Korea is one of a handful of communist countries left, and China is anxious not to put too much strain on that relationship.

In August 1992, when China established diplomatic relations with South Korea, North Korea was profoundly offended. President Kim Il Sung, who used to visit China at least once a year, stopped his visits. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, the current North Korean leader, did not resume such visits until May 2000, on the eve of his summit meeting with President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea.

After that visit, the Pyongyang-Beijing relationship warmed visibly, with Kim Jong Il paying a second visit to China in less than a year, and President Jiang Zemin paying a return visit a few months later. Now, China is in the rare position of having good relations with both sides of the Korean Peninsula, a position Beijing would very much want to keep.

But North Korean asylum seekers are making it difficult for China to manage the relationship with the two Koreas. China is reluctant to let the outside world know what the precise nature of its relationship with North Korea is like. Asked at a press conference if China had briefed North Korea on the five asylum seekers, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman did not respond. However, after they were released, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that other North Korean escapees in China would not be granted permission to go to another country, a statement that was probably meant for Pyongyang’s ears.

Of course, China’s decision not to turn asylum seekers over to North Korea — at lest those involved in highly publicized cases — reflects not just its good relationship with South Korea but, even more, its desire to maintain a good image internationally, especially now that it has become a member of the World Trade Organization and is going to be hosting the Olympics in 2008.

An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 North Koreans have crossed illegally into China in search of food, and Beijing is believed to send back to North Korea those it succeeds in apprehending.

China isn’t the only country embarrassed by the North Korean asylum seekers. Even South Korea, which lets in all North Koreans who have fled their country, is lukewarm about these refugees. For one thing, Seoul does not want to antagonize Beijing. For another, it is fearful that highly publicized cases of northern refugees receiving haven in the South may provoke Pyongyang and jeopardize President Kim’s “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North.

For these reasons, South Korean officials have been noticeably silent about the plight of their northern compatriots in China. Only South Korean nongovernmental organizations as well as NGOs from other countries have been actively helping the asylum seekers. If South Korea was willing to openly welcome all North Korean refugees, they would be congregating at the South Korean Embassy in China rather than embassies of other nationalities.

One of those helping North Korean escapees, German physician Norbert Vollersten, has announced dramatic plans for June, when South Korea would be hosting the World Cup. Vollersten said that he would organize a sea-borne exodus of 1,500 North Koreans from China for South Korea. If he succeeds in pulling this off, China would be deeply embarrassed. China, no doubt, would like to foil the project, but so would both North Korea and South Korea.

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