Sat, Mar 16, 2002 - Page 1 News List

North Korean refugees arrive in Manila


North Korean asylum-seekers who sought refuge in the Spanish Embassy in Beijing and threatened suicide if sent back to their communist homeland arrived yesterday in the Philippines, bound for capitalist South Korea.

The UN's refugee agency thanked China and Spain for quickly resolving the 25 asylum-seekers' plight. They had flooded past Chinese guards and into the embassy in Beijing on Thursday.

The North Koreans -- men, women and children said to be as young as 10 -- arrived in Manila on a China Southern commercial flight late yesterday, Manila airport authorities said. Journalists were prevented from approaching the group or watching them disembark.

They were expected to leave for Seoul today, airport officials said.

A South Korean deputy foreign minister, Lee Tae-sik, confirmed that his government was trying to bring the asylum seekers there.

Earlier in northeastern Beijing, a convoy consisting of two sport-utility vehicles, a van and the ambassador's Mercedes limousine left the Spanish embassy, pulling out onto the tree-lined street of diplomatic compounds.

The vehicles were crowded with people, but their darkened windows kept reporters from seeing who the passengers were.

Chinese security officers who had cordoned off the embassy relaxed visibly after the convoy departed. Police in blue uniforms shook each other's hands, and armed police in green uniforms applauded.

The asylum-seekers left Beijing an hour after Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基), at a nationally televised news conference, said his government had found a solution to what could have been a lengthy diplomatic snarl.

"China's foreign ministry has consulted with the relevant embassy and has reached agreement with them. This matter will be handled in accordance with law," Zhu said.

The asylum bid had presented China with a political conundrum. Beijing is obliged by a treaty with Pyongyang to return fleeing North Koreans but risked alienating world opinion if it sent the asylum-seekers home to the hardline communist dictatorship. Human-rights and aid groups have criticized China for sending back North Koreans caught fleeing famine and repression.

The North Koreans had asked to be allowed to go to South Korea, saying they might be killed if sent back.

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