BEIJING - More than 20 North Koreans clambered over a low cement wall and into the protection of the school in the lightly guarded German Embassy compound here, the second mass effort to gain asylum by North Koreans here in as many days.
The German ambassador rushed to the scene, persuading the Chinese police not to enter. Well into the night, the North Koreans, including three children, sat patiently eating snacks on the wide stairs of a decorative fire escape on the modern building. Outside, hordes of police officers paced in frustration.
The scene was oddly serene compared with the mayhem on Monday after 12 North Koreans tried to enter a compound housing the Ecuadorian Embassy, which is usually lightly guarded. Most were dragged off instantly by police officers who had apparently been warned.
The back-to-back episodes display an extraordinary capacity for reconnaissance and organization on the part of the North Koreans, many of whom are advised by human rights activists, some in China but many overseas. Embassies in this city are usually ringed with soldiers and barbed wire.
The attempts speak to an escalating game between those advocates and the Chinese authorities - in which the fate of individual refugees is often subsidiary to the larger hatreds and goals.
Douglas Shin, a Los Angeles-based pastor who has worked with North Korean refugees for many years, acknowledged that a network of activists had organized three earlier asylum efforts in Beijing. He said the two this week were planned largely by the refugees - though with some outside logistical advice and financial support. His group helped purchase the vehicles used Monday, he said.
"We are fighting everyone who is preventing us from helping the North Koreans," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. "What are our motivations? Sometimes we just want to help people. Sometimes we feel hatred for the dictatorship. Sometimes we see a war and North Korea's pending collapse. Sometimes maybe we are fighting the Chinese dictatorship, as well."
Experts estimate that more than 100,000 North Koreans now live illegally in China, although many more have probably moved back and forth at some time in the past five years. Though they generally come in search of food, fleeing years of hunger in their homeland, they often become accustomed to China's more open society.
In the past, China had usually ignored the refugees, who tended to work in menial labor in the border region. But this year, in an angry response to the asylum campaign, Chinese authorities have started aggressively detaining North Koreans and sending them home.
Once the North Koreans manage to enter embassy property, the Chinese have let them leave the country and ultimately go to South Korea, where the constitution guarantees them citizenship. This year, more than 80 have followed that route.
China requires them to go to South Korea by way of a third country as a courtesy to North Korea, its longtime ally. The Philippines said yesterday that 21 North Koreans in the South Korean consulate in Beijing were to leave China today.
Yesterday's asylum attempt was extraordinary in many respects, not the least of which was that the Chinese police, who conduct heavy surveillance, seemed to have bad information. In midafternoon, large numbers of Chinese security personal gathered outside the German Embassy, apparently suspecting some kind of action.
The North Koreans were two miles away, jumping without resistance into a small embassy-affiliated compound that houses the school and apartments for German diplomats.
"At 3:25, a principal came in and said that North Koreans were on the grounds and we had to leave as soon as possible so they could close the building," said Sven-Erik Green, a 12th-grader, who said the group had already perched on the fire escape just below his classroom.
The students said the school, which includes kindergarten through high school, was quickly evacuated and they were told that it would not be open today. Many of the teen-agers stayed for hours, though, to watch what one called "the most interesting thing that has happened at the school all year."