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North Korean Asylum Seekers Expected to Leave China - 2002-03-15

The diplomatic stand-off in China over two dozen North Korean asylum seekers is over. The group has left the Spanish Embassy in Beijing, and is expected to fly to a third country, possibly the Philippines and eventually make their way to South Korea.

Several cars left the Spanish Embassy in Beijing about mid-day Friday, headed for the airport. The convoy was apparently carrying the 25 North Korean asylum seekers who rushed into the Spanish Embassy Thursday. Officials in Spain and the Philippines say the group will go first to Manila.

Earlier, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji said China had "reached an agreement" on the status of the group which demanded asylum and passage to South Korea.

Mr. Zhu told reporters the matter would be handled "according to law," but gave no details.

The North Koreans threatened to kill themselves if they were sent back to their starving homeland. The group includes children as young as 10 years old.

This is the second major North Korean defection case in China in a year. Last year a family of seven North Koreans walked into the U.N. refugee office demanding political asylum. They were eventually flown to South Korea.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are said to be hiding in the largely ethnic-Korean areas in northern China. Beijing considers them economic migrants, who must be returned home rather than given refugee status.

The North Koreans' demand for asylum presents a diplomatic problem for China. Beijing has strong ties to its communist neighbor North Korea, and a treaty obligation to send North Koreans back across the border.

But South Korea, a key economic ally of China, has a standing policy to accept most North Korean asylum seekers. Many foreign human rights groups and governments say the North Koreans would be brutally treated if they go home and should be protected as political refugees.

A German doctor, Norbert Vollertsen, who helped organize the Spanish embassy incident said he is part of an organization that will try to get even larger groups of people out of North Korea in the future. "There is an underground network in North Korea that is arranging something to get more of them out. But I can't talk about this, but we will try to get more of them out," he said.

North Korea has endured serious food shortages since 1995 caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement, and millions of the country's citizens depend on foreign food aid donations to survive.