BEIJING – Forty-three men, women and children using ladders clambered over a spiked fence around the Canadian Embassy on Wednesday in what appeared to be the biggest recent bid for asylum by North Koreans (search). One other man was stopped by police.
The group, which reportedly included two former political prisoners, was an embarrassing reminder of the dismal conditions in North Korea, whose isolationist, Stalinist dictatorship is officially China's ally.
There was no immediate indication whether the incident might hinder Chinese diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to attend a new round of six-nation talks on Washington's demand that the North up its nuclear weapons program (search). China is obligated by treaty to send home fleeing North Koreans, but hasn't done so in cases that become public.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans fleeing famine and repression at home live in hiding in China's northeast. Hundreds have been allowed to leave for South Korea (search) over the past three years after gaining refuge by dashing into embassies and other foreign offices in China.
Canadian officials said they couldn't provide any details on the embassy invaders.
"We are in the process of speaking to them to determine who they are and what they expect of us," Ambassador Joseph Caron told reporters outside his embassy's gate. "It would appear there were some North Koreans in the group."
The group was made up of five families and included an escapee from a North Korean prison and a woman who had been a political prisoner, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on its Web site. It said a 66-year-old woman in the group had escaped once before from the North in 1997 but was caught and sent home.
Asylum bids have become common in Beijing despite Chinese government efforts to block them by erecting barriers of barbed wire in the capital's embassy districts and posting extra guards, sometimes armed with machine guns. Earlier this month, 29 people claiming to be North Koreans forced their way through a fence into a Japanese school in Beijing.
Chinese leaders have rejected appeals to treat North Koreans living in China as refugees, saying they are economic migrants. But most North Korean asylum-seekers who get into an embassy are allowed to leave for South Korea after a few days, following interviews to confirm their identities.
Caron said two groups of North Koreans entered Canada's embassy two years ago. At least two of them were eventually taken to South Korea, he said.
Last year, a total of 1,285 North Koreans reached South Korea by various routes, up from 1,140 in 2002.
A Chinese police officer outside the Canadian Embassy said he saw the group run across a street carrying three metal ladders, place them against the fence and climb over.
"All were successful except for one man, who was taken away by police," said the officer, who would give only his surname, Li.
Li said the refuge-seekers wore yellow construction hardhats, possibly as a disguise.
Caron said he couldn't confirm whether anyone was detained, but he said a few people were injured. He did not provide any details.
Later, reporters saw an ambulance leave the embassy carrying one person. It wasn't clear who was inside, and the embassy's spokesman didn't return messages asking for information.
Reporters also saw a truck carrying about a dozen mattresses drive into the compound, a possible sign that Canadian officials might be preparing for a long stay by the group.
By Wednesday evening, there were only six security guards left outside the embassy and the sidewalk was open. Local residents were walking their dogs.