Sat, Mar 29, 2008 - Page 5 News List

N Koreans seek asylum at embassy in Vientiane

AGENCIES , SEOUL

Twelve North Korean asylum-seekers have forced their way into the South Korean embassy in Laos, the embassy said on Friday.

"Twelve North Korean defectors including 11 females and one male entered the embassy on Thursday," South Korean Ambassador Park Jae-hyun told Yonhap news agency.

"We're going to respect what they want, in accordance with humanitarian principles and international standards," Park said.

All are in good condition and under the embassy's protective custody, he said, without specifying whether they wanted to come to South Korea.

Earlier, four international human rights groups helping the refugees reportedly said they wanted to travel to South Korea.

The North Koreans entered the embassy on Thursday with the help of human rights activists working in Vientiane, the Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers International said in a statement.

"They were on their way to freedom in South Korea, but have since been stranded in Vientiane," the group said.

South Korea's foreign ministry declined to confirm the case. It usually declines comment on North Korean refugees, citing their safety and the sensitivity of the diplomacy involved in processing asylum seekers from the North.

An increasing number of North Koreans who flee are traveling through China to Southeast Asia. Thailand has become a busy transit point, but it is unusual for the refugees to seek passage in Laos.

They risk forced repatriation if caught in China, which terms them illegal economic migrants.

Some 12,250 North Koreans have defected to South Korea since 1953, the vast majority of them in recent years. Under the South Korean Constitution, they have a right to citizenship.

Seoul prefers a low-key approach to the issue. North Korea lodged a strong protest in 2004 when Seoul airlifted about 460 North Koreans out of Vietnam in the biggest-ever mass defection.

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