South Korea filed a protest with China after police in Beijing allegedly used force against its diplomats while arresting a group of people believed to be North Korean refugees, an official said Wednesday.
The Foreign Ministry called in a Chinese diplomat in Seoul to express regret over "unsavory friction with our diplomats" and to ask the Beijing government to release those arrested Tuesday if they are confirmed as North Koreans seeking asylum, a ministry official said.
The official declined to identify the Chinese official summoned.
"If they identified themselves as diplomats, Chinese police shouldn't have touched them," the official said on condition of anonymity, citing the issue's sensitivity.
The official did not elaborate on details of the incident. But local media reported that Chinese police forcefully put the arms of two South Korean consuls behind their backs as the diplomats protested the arrest of four North Korean refugees from a South Korean international school in Beijing.
The alleged defectors entered the school to seek asylum, reports said.
China's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday the four "damaged the normal order of the school" and were under investigation.
"The relevant Chinese departments will handle the case according to the law," it said in a statement.
Thousands of North Koreans have fled their communist homeland to escape hunger and harsh political oppression, many of them taking refuge at foreign diplomatic missions in China on their way to eventual asylum in South Korea.
After Beijing intensified a crackdown on North Koreans, an increasing number of refugees are believed to take a long and risky land journey through China to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries to seek asylum.
China views fleeing North Koreans as "economic migrants," not refugees, and is obligated to send them back under a bilateral treaty with Pyongyang. But Beijing has allowed most North Koreans who take refuge at diplomatic missions to leave the country in an attempt to avoid international criticism.