HONG KONG — The latest dispute between South Korea and China, in which more than 20 North Koreans sought asylum in Seoul’s embassy, does no credit to either country. Fortunately, the meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan and South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong on June 19 appears to have paved the way to a resolution. But such incidents are sure to continue to arise. What is needed is an international consensus on how such asylum-seekers should be handled in the future.

The first Asia Cooperation Dialogue, sponsored by Thailand, also provided an opportunity for the Chinese minister to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Yoriko Kawaguchi. The Chinese official proposed that the two countries sign a bilateral consular treaty to avoid conflicts such as the one last month, when Chinese policemen entered the Japanese consulate in Shenyang to remove North Korean asylum-seekers.

The Chinese may well see such consular treaties as a way to halt the current spate of incidents in which dozens of North Korean asylum-seekers have sought refuge in diplomatic compounds in China. They wish Japan and South Korea, and indeed all other countries, to agree not to give shelter to such “intruders,” but it is doubtful if such a proposal will be acceptable to the international community at large.

For now, however, talks between China and South Korea on such a treaty would at least lower the temperature in the dispute over an incident June 13, when two North Koreans, a father and son, sought asylum in the South Korean Embassy.

According to Seoul, Chinese policemen punched and kicked South Korean diplomats who sought to prevent the removal of a North Korean whose son succeeded in entering the visa office. Beijing, however, insists that the South Korean diplomats “abused their privilege” and “brazenly prevented the Chinese public security staff from implementing their duties.”

The Chinese claim that they were acting to protect the South Korean mission from intruders. However, once the South Koreans in effect put out the welcome mat, these people can no longer be considered intruders. It is grotesque for China to argue that the South Korean diplomats had to be punched and kicked because they were preventing Chinese policemen from “carrying out their duties” when those duties, presumably, were to protect South Korean diplomats, not to beat them up.

The Chinese seem to have a point, though, when they say that South Korea is being inconsistent. On May 23, several persons broke into the embassy’s visa office. At the time, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, “the South Korean side made it clear that it doesn’t want persons of that kind to enter the visa office. It has asked on various occasions for Chinese assistance in preventing them from entering the embassy.”

This is a credible account, given South Korea’s previous reluctance to offer asylum to North Koreans in its diplomatic missions. If Seoul’s policy has since changed, it should make this known. In fact, South Korea should investigate the incident to determine whether, as China claims, the embassy’s own guards had called on Chinese guards for help to keep the North Koreans out. Of course, even if this had happened, it would not justify the manhandling of the South Korean diplomats by Chinese policemen.

Privately, Chinese say, not without reason, that if South Korea is willing to accept all North Korean asylum-seekers, it should open up its border with the North and not force their compatriots to travel through China. Of course, given President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy,” South Korea is not about to do that. But when individual asylum-seekers are in the public eye, it has little choice but to offer them refuge.

This is a situation that needs to be handled deftly by both China and the international community, perhaps through the United Nations. China has so far allowed dozens of North Korean asylum-seekers to leave for South Korea via a third country, but this is clearly straining Beijing’s relations with Pyongyang.

The U.S. Senate on June 20 passed a resolution urging China to allow safe passage for asylum-seekers. China has rejected such advice, deeming it interference in its internal affairs. However, it would be much harder for China to reject a resolution adopted by a U.N. agency, such as the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, which is under the Commission on Human Rights.

China’ Foreign Ministry has contacted all embassies in the country asking them not to give shelter to North Korean asylum-seekers. This provides an opportunity for these countries to forge a common position. If the international community doesn’t come up with a solution, it will be difficult to blame China for any action that it may take on its own.

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