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North Korean Defectors Taken to Secure Location in Manila - 2002-03-16

Philippine officials say 25 North Korean asylum seekers have been taken to a secure place in Manila before their eventual trip to South Korea. The group's defection had earlier sparked a diplomatic stand-off in Beijing.

Philippines' National Security Adviser Roilo Golez said the North Korean asylum seekers can stay in the Philippines for a maximum of 72 hours before heading to South Korea. He says they have been sent to a safe location after their arrival from Beijing Friday night.

The 25 North Koreans, including children as young as 10, forced their way into the Spanish embassy in Beijing Thursday and demanded to be sent to South Korea. Some threatened to poison themselves if they were sent back to their starving homeland.

Media report the group is expected to fly to South Korea on Monday.

Mr. Golez said the North Koreans appeared to be tired but in good condition when they arrived. "They looked okay, 25 of them, six families in the group," he said. "They were very quiet except for the children. They looked stressed, of course."

The defection put Beijing in a difficult diplomatic position, caught between communist ally North Korea, economic partner South Korea and the United Nations, which favored granting North Korean defectors refugee status. Thousands of North Koreans have sneaked across the border into China in recent years in an effort to escape famine caused by mismanagement and drought. Under existing treaties between Beijing and Pyongyang, all North Korean refugees are to be immediately repatriated.

It is the second such defection in China in a year. A smaller group of North Koreans stormed a United Nation's office last year seeking asylum in South Korea. That group made several stops, including the Philippines, before landing in Seoul.

Officials in the Philippines say the decision to allow Manila to be a transit point for the group will not affect relations with Pyongyang because it had been done for "humanitarian reasons."