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Asylum-seekers Dispute Nearing an End - 2002-05-22

Five North Korean asylum-seekers detained by China have left the country and are on their way to Seoul via the Philippines. Their departure marks the end of a diplomatic dispute between China and Japan.

A South Korean diplomat in Beijing confirms that five North Koreans held in the northeastern Chinese city Shenyang have left China. They boarded a China Southern Airlines flight bound for Manila late Wednesday afternoon. Chinese guards reportedly accompanied the five on their flight.

A government spokesman in Manila, Vic Lecaros, says that after arriving in the Philippines, the Asylum seekers are expected to travel to Seoul. This morning the Secretary of Foreign Affairs agreed to a request made by the Republic of Korea, through their embassy in Manila, to allow five North Korean asylum-seekers to transit Manila," Mr. Lecaros said.

Mr. Lecaros says Philippine diplomats have not talked with either Beijing or Tokyo about the agreement to let the North Koreans leave China. Beijing and Japan both declined to comment on the matter Wednesday.

The release of the asylum seekers is expected to end a two-week dispute between Beijing and Tokyo. Chinese police dragged the five, including a three-year-old girl, from the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang May 8th, after they tried to seek refuge there.

Tokyo demanded they be handed over to Japanese diplomats, and accused Chinese police of breaking international law by entering the consulate without permission. Beijing insists Japan invited the guards onto the property.

Beijing is North Korea's main ally, and does not recognize the refugee status of North Korean illegally crossing the border to China. Beijing usually sends refugees home. But China has come under increasing pressure from other countries not to repatriate North Koreans seeking asylum at embassies.

Dozens of North Koreans have been allowed to leave China for Seoul via a third country in recent months. Chinese police have stepped up security in Beijing's diplomatic districts, to block access to embassies.