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North Korean Asylum Seekers Arrive in South Korea - 2003-05-09

Twelve North Korean asylum seekers arrived in South Korea Friday, and are at a government center for debriefing. They are the latest group of North Koreans to flee their Stalinist homeland due to chronic food shortages and political repression.

All of the North Korean defectors were women aged between 16 and 46. They waved to onlookers but didn't speak as they were led to a government shelter after landing in South Korea.

Their journey was a circuitous one that began at the South Korean Embassy in Beijing, where the women made a plea for asylum. Most North Korean asylum seekers base their request on the communist country's political persecution and severe food shortages.

In Beijing, the defectors went through quarantine checks for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and put on masks as an extra precaution. They boarded a plane for southeastern city of Xiamen. From there, they proceeded to a brief stop in Manila before heading to Incheon International airport near Seoul.

China does not permit the transport of North Korean defectors directly to South Korea from its territory, to avoid offending its communist ally. The Philippines has a humanitarian policy, which has made it a stopover for 200 North Koreans in transit during the past six years.

In all, about 270 North Koreans defected to South Korea in the first quarter of this year. Many others are believed to be in China, waiting for the opportunity to make an asylum bid. Because of that, the Chinese government puts especially high security around foreign embassies, consulates, and missions.

But making it into a foreign mission isn't a guarantee of getting to South Korea. Beijing often refuses to grant refugee status to North Koreans treating them as illegal economic immigrants, and has a standing agreement with Pyongyang to repatriate them.

North Korea is heavily dependent on outside food aid, but many of its 22 million people are believed to live under conditions of near starvation. Human rights groups say a failed attempt at defecting is all but certain to mean a sentence of death or forced labor. But for those North Koreans that succeed in reaching the south, the trip can mean freedom, a cash handout, and a job offer.