BEIJING—In a sign of newfound strains with North Korea, China has quietly allowed three North Korean refugees who'd been holed up at a U.S. consulate in its northeast region to travel to the United States.
China never before has permitted North Korean refugees to depart directly for safety in the United States, returning them instead to imprisonment in their homeland.
The move underscored frictions between North Korea and China, its only major ally, after Pyongyang's launch July 4 of at least seven ballistic missiles that rattled East Asia. The missiles, including a three-stage Taepodong-2 that fizzled shortly after takeoff, splashed down in the Sea of Japan.
China's displeasure at the missile tests, while not expressed openly, can be read into several actions, analysts said, including the pending appointment of a U.S.-educated senior diplomat to serve as ambassador in Pyongyang.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans in recent years have fled for China, often seeking safe passage to third countries. China has denied them status as refugees, classifying them as illegal economic immigrants, and has barred the U.N. High Commission for Refugees from providing for their protection.
Of the four North Koreans protected in the U.S. consulate in Shenyang, three chose to leave for the United States July 22 and one opted to travel to South Korea.
U.S. officials declined to discuss the matter.
"In order to protect applicants and their families . . . we don't comment on asylum or refuge requests or confirm or deny their existence," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Darragh T. Paradiso said.
Congressional staff members and human rights activists in the United States confirmed that the refugees had left for the United States late last month. They spoke on condition of anonymity because there has been no official announcement.
The refugees joined six other North Koreans admitted to the United States in May, the first to arrive under provisions of the North Korean Human Rights Act, which the Senate passed in 2004.
China provides key energy supplies to North Korea, and protects the Kim Jong Il regime in Pyongyang as a valued geographic buffer with South Korea, where U.S. troops are based.
But China grew irritated by North Korea's missile tests, which threw new obstacles in its way as the host of six-nation negotiations to resolve a crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The talks bogged down late last year.
North Korea declared in February 2005 that it had developed nuclear weapons. U.S. officials fear that Pyongyang is testing missiles as a nuclear weapons-delivery vehicle.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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