Accessibility links

25 North Korean Asylum Seekers Arrive in Seoul - 2002-03-18

Twenty-five North Koreans, who forced their way into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing demanding asylum in South Korea four days ago, have arrived in Seoul. Their dramatic escape has drawn attention to the tens of thousands of North Koreans said to be in hiding in China.

The 25 North Korean asylum seekers arrived in Seoul Monday after spending three days in Manila undergoing medical checks at a military base.

Kim Euy-taek, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry, says that a government-run program will support the defectors as they adjust to South Korea's fast-paced, capitalist lifestyle. "The two systems in North and South Korea are different, so the program is designed to help those people to be able to settle successfully in South Korea," Mr. Kim said.

The North Koreans had forced their way into the Spanish Embassy last Thursday and warned that they would commit suicide if China sent them home. A brief statement released on the group's behalf said that they had previously fled to China but were forcibly repatriated under an agreement between Beijing and Pyongyang.

China considers North Koreans who enter illegally to be economic migrants fleeing famine rather than political refugees, whom the United Nations considers worthy of asylum.

The Spanish Embassy incident put China in a difficult diplomatic position. Beijing did not want to offend its long-time ally North Korea but did not want to anger South Korea, a key economic trading partner.

After a day of negotiations, China agreed to allow the group to be sent to a third country, the Philippines.

The recent defections have drawn attention to the thousands of North Koreans who make dangerous journeys into China each year in the hope of reaching South Korea. Aid groups say tens of thousands of North Koreans remain in hiding in China, desperately trying to escape from the Stalinist state, where poverty and hunger are rife.

South Korean Intelligence officials say the arrival of the asylum seekers will raise this year's tally to 138. Last year, a record 583 North Koreans defected to the South.