SEOUL, Sept. 1, 2004 — ; A group of 29 men, women, and children believed to be North Korean defectors have forced their way inside a Japanese school in Beijing and are sheltering inside the Japanese Embassy in the Chinese capital.
The North Koreans had been planning their bid for political asylum carefully for at least one month with the help of unnamed individual activists, a Japanese journalist familiar with the group told RFA's Korean service.
None of the usual non-government groups aiding North Koreans in China was involved, according to several spokespersons contacted by RFA.
However, prominent North Korean refugee rights activist Moon Kook-hwan said the group's bid for freedom was likely to pay off. "The defectors in the Japanese mission should be able to come to Seoul without difficulty, like any other previous defectors," Moon told RFA.
According to the South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper, one of the defectors is a former head of the 12th prison camp in Hoeryong, in Hamkyung Province close to the border with China.
The 11 men, 15 women, and three children climbed a cement wall and cut a metal fence to get into the school, which was in session at the time, Japanese and South Korean media reported.
They were not stopped by security guards at the school, which had once belonged to the Japanese Embassy but later became independent. Foreign schools, especially those that do not belong to embassies, are not technically considered protected areas and Chinese police would be entitled to enter them to arrest refugees.
Japanese officials immediately arrived at the scene, followed by Chinese authorities, and the refugees were swiftly transferred to the Japanese Embassy, the reports said.
In recent weeks, four North Koreans climbed a wall into the German school in Beijing and more than a dozen succeeded in entering the South Korean consulate.
In July 468 North Korean refugees who had been holed up in Vietnam were taken to South Korea in the biggest mass defection since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
That incident infuriated Pyongyang, which has said it will recall an ambassador from "a Southeast Asian country," thought likely to indicate Vietnam.
Rights groups estimate that as many as 300,000 North Korean refugees may be In hiding in China, which generally does not regard them as refugees and forcibly repatriates them.
But in recent months, the more high-profile cases that have drawn international attention have been allowed to leave China, eventually arriving in South Korea.
More than 1,300 North Koreans have defected to Seoul so far this year.