Refugees get asylum, travel to Manila en route to S. Korea
BEIJING, China -- A group of 25 North Korean asylum seekers who stormed Spain's embassy in Beijing have arrived in Manila for a three day stop-over before heading for South Korea after a deal was struck with the Chinese government.
The group of men, women and children rushed past Chinese guards at the embassy Thursday morning and asked to be allowed to go to South Korea, vowing suicide if they were sent back home.
On Friday, the asylum seekers where whisked from the compound in four vehicles to Beijing's airport for the trip to the Philippines.
"They will be brought to an undisclosed place. Let's give them a little privacy," Presidential National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said after meeting the group on board a commercial plane that flew into Manila from Beijing
Beijing is keen to get itself out of a sticky diplomatic fix, torn between old Communist ally North Korea, key economic partner South Korea and the United Nations, which has said such migrants are fleeing persecution and deserve refugee status.
China has a treaty with Pyongyang requiring it to return fleeing North Koreans and has sent many home, prompting complaints by human rights and aid groups.
The plight of North Koreans in China was thrown into the spotlight in June last year when a family of seven walked into the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Beijing and demanded political asylum.
After several days of delicate talks, China let the family go to South Korea via Singapore and the Philippines on humanitarian grounds, avoiding a standoff and bad press just before a vote on Beijing's bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
Supporters of the asylum seekers say tens of thousands of North Koreans are hiding in China's northeast.
Fearing an influx of potential refugees, Beijing has taken a firm stance on such illegal migrants in the past, saying they are economic migrants and should be sent back home.
The group of 25 North Koreans had threatened suicide if they were sent back to the Stalinist state, which has suffered years of drought, floods and fierce winters.
They were fleeing persecution from their hard-line communist country, according to a Spanish diplomat and a Tokyo-based refugee support organization.
There was no indication why the refugees chose the Spanish Embassy, but the compound's front gate is usually left open, in contrast to more heavily guarded embassies.
South Korean aid groups say that between 150,000 and 300,000 North Koreans are scattered in the hills of northeast China.
Beijing has quietly given North Korea food to help stave off famine that has stalked the country since the mid-1990s.
North Korean family seeks asylum in South
July 1, 2001
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