BEIJING – South Korea's consulate in the Chinese capital will close for business indefinitely because it is housing too many North Korean refugees (search) to continue operating smoothly and issuing visas, a South Korean diplomat said Monday.
The diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that the closure will take effect Tuesday. She couldn't say how long the office would be shut or how many North Korean asylum-seekers were inside.
The move means that anyone in China seeking a visa to South Korea (search) is out of luck for the immediate future.
"The number of North Korean refugees who are staying within the inside of the consulate is beyond our capacity," the diplomat said in a telephone interview. "So it makes it difficult to do our consular jobs."
The South Korean Embassy has been at the nexus of a delicate diplomatic dance involving China and North Korean asylum-seekers, who use embassy compounds in Beijing to escape the harsh rule of Kim Jong Il (search)'s government in the North.
Such asylum-seekers typically enter China through its border with North Korea, make their way to Beijing and dash into a foreign diplomatic compound -- among them embassies and consulates belonging to Japan, Spain, Germany and particularly South Korea.
Nearly 200 have done so since the beginning of last year, citing what they call abuse or political persecution at home. They typically make their way to South Korea through a third country.
The South Korean diplomat said the decision to suspend consulate operations was made by the embassy in consultation with the Foreign Ministry in Seoul.
The two Koreas split after World War II and fought a war in 1950-53, with the North backed by China and the South by the United States. Though an armistice was signed, the sides remain technically at war.
As its biggest ally, China has a treaty with Pyongyang requiring it to send back any illegal escapees. But it hasn't always done so in cases that have become public for fear of international backlash.
Outside the consulate on Tuesday, notices were posted in both Chinese and Korean announcing the closure. The handbills attributed it to "an internal adjustment" and also said the consulate's ability to make arrangements for all the North Korean defectors "beyond our control."