updated 12/17/2004 12:39:46 AM ET 2004-12-17T05:39:46

Seven people claiming to be North Koreans climbed over a barbed wire fence into the Japanese school in Beijing Friday seeking passage to South Korea.

They carried a sign that read in English: “We are North Koreans. We want to go to South Korea. Please help us,” the embassy official said.

Such asylum bids have become common in China, with North Koreans who are fleeing famine and repression at home rushing into embassies, schools and other foreign facilities.

“As soon as we found out the situation, we very quickly moved them to the Japanese Embassy,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Embassies are considered foreign territory beyond the reach of Chinese authorities. Schools typically are not.

Video shot by South Korea’s Munhwa Broadcasting Corp. showed the group helping each other over the fence. Dressed in heavy parkas, their breath visible in the cold winter air, they used a ladder to scale a concrete wall topped with a metal fence that surrounds the school.

Atop the high fence were lines of barbed wire, which they clutched with their bare hands. None wore gloves. One appeared to be wearing thick socks or bedroom slippers but no shoes. A small child clung to the back of one of the adults.

China is obliged by treaty to send North Koreans home but hasn’t done so in asylum bids that have become public, instead allowing them to go to South Korea via a third country.

“They are highly likely North Korean defectors,” said Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, in Tokyo. He described the group as two men, four women and a girl.

“We will investigate them further, and we also plan to discuss the matter with the Chinese government,” Hosoda said.

The seven asylum seekers entered the school in central Beijing at 3:45 a.m. Friday, the embassy official said. It is the only Japanese school in the city, he said.

The intrusion triggered an alarm at the school and a security guard saw the seven people sitting quietly on the playground, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Tokyo.

In September, 29 people claiming to be North Korean asylum seekers entered the school grounds.

Among them, nine were still staying at the Japanese Embassy as of Friday and 20 had left, the embassy official said. He wouldn’t say where the 20 had gone, but added: “You can say that all of them have the hope of going to South Korea.”

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