The South Korean embassy in Peking was sealed off by dozens of police yesterday after the arrival there on Wednesday of Hwang Jang Yop, a senior adviser to the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Reports from Peking said that North Korean diplomats had attempted to enter the compound overnight, and remained lurking outside in parked cars during the day.
South Korea dispatched senior officials to Peking to negotiate ways of bringing Mr Hwang to Seoul, and the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers will discuss the affair this weekend at an international governmental meeting in Singapore.
The foreign ministry denied claims from Pyongyang that Mr Hwang had been kidnapped by South Korean agents on his way back home from an international conference in Tokyo, but official utterances in Seoul were lacking in the hysteria which often characterises relations with the North.
Diplomats on all sides seem to realise that this is serious: quite apart from the humiliation to the unpredictable North Korean government, the defection creates a diplomatic dilemma for China which cannot but cause offence to one of its two quarrelsome neighbours.
Since initiating its market reforms, China has been more successful than any other country in balancing relations with Seoul and Pyongyang. With the North, it enjoys close relations as the country which intervened in the Korean War, and indirectly brought about the 45-year-old division of the peninsula. With the South it also has full diplomatic relations and flourishing two way trade.
It is almost inconceivable that China will jeopardise these and outrage international opinion by sending Mr Hwang back to Pyongyang. But if he is allowed to go to Seoul, it could seriously harm the only significant friendship which North Korea has left in the world.
The precise motives and exact circumstances behind the defection of 72- year-old Mr Hwang, along with a North Korean businessman, are still murky, and were made no clearer by the publication yesterday of two documents bearing his name.
The first, a rambling and emotional letter said to have been written a month ago, and passed on via an unnamed South Korean businessman in Peking, appeared on the front page of the Chosun Ilbo, a leading Seoul newspaper.
Opposition parties pointed out that it contains several striking echoes of South Korean government policy, and were prompt to suggest that it was faked. It urges the South to strengthen its military and internal security forces, and abandon any hope of negotiation with Pyongyang. "North Korea is waiting for the moment to turn the South into a sea of fire and tries to dissolve the South from within," it said.
But it also contained bitter criticism of Kim Jong Il, the son of North Korea's President, Kim Il Sung, who has presided over three years of floods, food shortages and economic failure. "The `ever-so-great general' has come to believe that he is really a genius after all the idolatry showered on him praising him as a great genius. How can a society where people, workers, farmers, and intellectuals starve to death be a socialist society?"
The second document was a note said to have been written by Mr Hwang since his defection. "After a long period of agonising deliberation, I have decided to leave the North and have a broader discussion with South Korean authorities about how to save our nation from misery," it reads.
"Beginning with my family, people will decide that I'm mad. But the question is: Am I the only mad person?"