Beijing is increasingly irked by South Korean efforts on behalf of a group of North Koreans who were arrested in China and face repatriation. In a press briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reiterated the North Koreans "illegally crossed the border for economic reasons. There are no sufficient grounds to consider them refugees."

Hong was replying to a question whether China intends to help defectors given that they face persecution if they are sent back to the North.

"Some defectors were sent back because they frequently crossed the border illegally. Some of them had crossed the border a dozen times," Hong said. "No country would tolerate illegal border crossing or criminal activities assisting such people."

"I'd like to say once again that the dignity of the Chinese laws should be duly respected and protected," he added. "China will deal with the issue on the basis of domestic and international laws and humanitarian principles."

Hong complained that South Korean media reports "are taking an emotional and political approach to the defector issue. This neither accords with the facts nor helps in finding a solution."

He urged Seoul "to maintain a large framework of bilateral relationships by dealing with this issue calmly and narrowing differences between the two countries through communication and cooperation."

In a speech marking the fourth anniversary of his inauguration on Feb. 22, President Lee Myung-bak urged the Chinese government to treat defectors in accordance with international norms unless they are criminals.

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