BEIJING, Jan. 13 -- Chinese security agents raided a news conference organized by visiting South Korean legislators Wednesday, shutting off the lights in a hotel meeting room and forcibly ejecting several foreign journalists. The raid prompted official statements of protest and concern in Seoul.
Four members of South Korea's opposition Grand National Party had called the news conference to urge the Chinese government to show leniency toward refugees from North Korea and to release South Korean activists jailed for trying to smuggle the refugees out of China. The visiting legislators refused orders to leave the room, resulting in a standoff that lasted nearly 13 hours.
China's ruling Communist Party routinely shuts down meetings it considers politically sensitive, but it rarely breaks up events hosted by visiting foreign dignitaries. The decision to disrupt the news conference highlights the government's growing anxiety about the migration of North Koreans into China, as well as about international criticism of its efforts to stem the flow.
When North Koreans fleeing hunger and repression in their homeland slip into China, Beijing refuses to recognize them as refugees entitled to political asylum and routinely sends them back to its communist ally. Human rights organizations have protested, saying China is sending them back to a country where they will probably be imprisoned and perhaps executed. As many as 200,000 North Koreans are believed to be living illegally in China.
Minutes after the South Korean lawmakers began the news conference at the Beijing Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, plainclothes officers shut off their microphones and turned off the lights, leaving the meeting room pitch dark. The legislators tried to continue, using cigarette lighters and lights from their cell phones to illuminate their notes, but the agents began shouting and pushing the dozens of journalists in the room toward the door.
"Please turn on the light, identify yourselves and explain what you are doing!" cried Kim Moon Soo, one of the lawmakers, as the agents scuffled with journalists. "We are members of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea. If you feel you have reason to stop us, please explain it to us."
The men, who numbered more than a dozen, refused to identify themselves, but they were believed to be agents of the State Security Ministry, which has participated in the apprehension and jailing of South Korean activists accused of assisting North Korean refugees. The men struck a photographer from the Associated Press on the head, and pushed and shoved most reporters out of the room. They refused to let anyone back in. A Washington Post reporter was one of those who remained inside.
The agents also ordered the South Korean lawmakers to leave, saying they needed the Chinese government's permission to hold a news conference, but the visitors refused.
"I spent three years in prison while fighting for democracy in South Korea, but I have never experienced anything like this," Kim said. "We will abide by Chinese law, but we want to see the relevant law. Where in the Chinese law does it prohibit holding press conferences?"
Kim's delegation has been on a fact-finding visit to China since Monday, traveling to a region bordering North Korea and meeting with some of the more than 100 refugees who are currently seeking asylum inside the South Korean Consulate in Beijing. Members of the delegation attended a luncheon hosted by Chinese officials Wednesday, and they were scheduled to meet with the warden of a Chinese prison holding four South Korean activists on Thursday.
In Seoul, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon called an emergency meeting to discuss the Chinese action. "We think it is regretful that this kind of incident has happened," Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Kyu Hyung was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency. "As soon as we confirm what exactly has happened, we will take necessary measures."
The Grand National Party urged the Seoul government to respond firmly, with at least one lawmaker urging the recall of South Korea's ambassador to Beijing as a protest.
"It is unthinkable that 13 Chinese men who refused to identify themselves stormed into a press conference by lawmakers representing a country with diplomatic ties with China," said Chun Yu Ok, a party spokeswoman, according to Yonhap. "The Chinese government will have to give a clear explanation."
The security agents restored lighting in the room about an hour after interrupting the news conference, but they continued trying to prevent the lawmakers from speaking to reporters. Several agents filmed and took pictures of the journalists left in the room while other agents sat blockading the doors, preventing even South Korean diplomats from entering.
The lawmakers attempted to leave and speak to reporters outside the room at 1 a.m., but security agents insisted they first disclose what they were going to say. The standoff ended at 3 a.m. when the agents agreed to let the lawmakers make a brief statement protesting their treatment and demanding an explanation from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.