Officials in talks with China, which fears new influx

The United States is considering admitting for resettlement some North Korean refugees now hiding inside China, RFA's Mandarin and Korean services report. Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as 300,000 North Koreans are living underground in China.

Officials are currently in delicate negotiations with their Chinese counterparts over the issue, with the resettlement of North Koreans in the United States or South Korea tabled as possible outcomes, Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Dewey told reporters.

"We are at a delicate point in discussions," said Dewey, the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration. He traveled to Beijing in August for talks on the issue with the Chinese, and he said negotiations were at a "sensitive stage."

He said Washington would be prepared to begin admitting North Korean refugees for resettlement immediately if a breakthrough in negotiations were reached.

However, China is extremely wary of such proposals, fearing that the move would encourage a further flood of refugees across the border from the isolated Stalinist state.

Wang Gaocheng of Taiwan�s Dan Jiang University said China is increasingly eager to deal with the issue of North Korean refugees before a steady trickle becomes a flood. "I think basically China doesn�t want to see the issue of North Korean refugees get any bigger," he told RFA�s Mandarin service.

Zheng Yushuo of Hong Kong City University said he regards Washington�s plan as strategic. "The United States believes that if North Korean refugees hiding in China are allowed to go to other countries, including South Korea, their number will greatly increase. Among these refugees, there will be people with technical skills, and this will hit the North Korean economy hard," Zheng said.

"Washington hopes to take advantage of this policy to put pressure on Pyongyang. The problem is whether China will consent to [the refugee resettlement plan]. Now that North Korea is escalating threats�saying it has acquired enough material to make five or six nuclear bombs�China�s consent will mean agreeing to work together with the United States to put pressure on North Korea."

Beijing is worried that the recent wave of defections via China will soon become a flood, as up to 300,000 North Koreans now in hiding in China seek political asylum in the embassies of third countries in Beijing and through other routes.

China has launched a crackdown on North Koreans within its borders, and denies that they are political refugees, calling them economic migrants in search of better opportunities. Beatings and abuse of North Koreans by Chinese security forces are widely reported.

However, the Chinese authorities have so far allowed the more high-profile asylum-seekers to travel to third countries "for health reasons."

Admitting North Korean refugees has been under discussion for some time within U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, as it seeks to increase pressure on Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have expressed "serious concern" at North Korea's latest claims to have reprocessed spent nuclear fuel rods to make weapons-grade plutonium.

In a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency Thursday, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman denied reports that a nuclear facility in Yongbyon had ceased operation and said Pyongyang had made no promise to hold further talks following the six-party talks in Beijing in August.

"As the United States has no intention to drop its hostile policy, North Korea will consistently maintain and increase its nuclear deterrent force as a just self-defensive means to repel the U.S. pre-emptive nuclear attack and ensure peace and security on the Korean Peninsula," said the statement, which was regarded by some as an attempt to increase negotiating pressure on the United States ahead of possible further talks.

Washington is thought to be trying to persuade China to allow the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to become involved in an "orderly process" that would allow North Korean asylum seekers who have fled to China to leave for a third country. The UNHCR has expressed its readiness to cooperate on the issue.

Experts and officials say that Washington wants Beijing to set up camps for the refugees and has offered to help finance them in a bid to increase pressure on the Stalinist state. Some predict that setting up such camps would bring down the world's last hard-line Communist regime.

U.S. refugee arrivals diminished sharply after more stringent security checks were set up in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.

Washington plans to accommodate the North Koreans under what it calls the "unallocated reserve" of refugee places. The Bush administration is asking Congress to approve 20,000 places under this scheme in fiscal 2004.


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