BEIJING -- Forty-three men, women, and children using ladders clambered over a spiked fence around the Canadian Embassy in China's capital yesterday in what appeared to be the biggest recent bid for asylum by North Koreans. 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 give up its nuclear weapons program. 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 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 website. 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.
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.