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Fate of North Korean Asylum Seekers Still Undecided - 2002-09-04


The fate of dozens of desperate North Korean asylum-seekers hangs in the balance as officials from several nations try to work out the next step in the Chinese capital. Just Tuesday, some 15 North Koreans sought refuge in a German diplomatic school the latest in a string of asylum bids.

A news report from Manila says 21 North Korean refugees currently sheltering in a South Korean diplomatic office will soon be allowed to leave Beijing for the Philippines on their way to new homes in South Korea.

Officials at the Philippine and South Korean embassies would not confirm the report, but dozens of North Korean refugees have used this route in the past.

More than 80 North Koreans have rushed or tricked their way into embassies in China over the past year, eventually winning political asylum and passage to South Korea.

They are among tens of thousands of North Koreans living illegally in China after fleeing starvation and repression in their communist homeland.

China says the North Koreans are economic migrants seeking better jobs, not political refugees deserving special protection and Beijing has a treaty obligation to send them back to North Korea if it catches them.

But human rights groups say some returned refugees face imprisonment and brutal treatment in North Korea, and China has been reluctant to tarnish its international reputation by shipping migrants home in high-profile cases.

Meantime, another 15 North Koreans scrambled over a wall and into a school run by the German Embassy in Beijing Tuesday, raising the stakes in this diplomatic wrangle.

The German and Chinese governments are holding talks on the matter, and the building remains cordoned off by police.

The North Koreans' plight has been complicating China's foreign relations for months with no apparent solution in sight.

Things may be about to get worse, a new United Nations report says food aid for North Korea will be reduced soon because the World Food Program is running short of the donations needed to feed the all the hungry people in the North.

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