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Deal With Philippines Allows N. Korean Asylum Seekers to Leave China - 2002-09-04

An agreement with the Philippine government may mean that 21 North Korean asylum seekers will be able to leave China for new lives in South Korea. Several groups of desperate North Koreans have stormed embassies in the Chinese capital the hope of leaving the country.

Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ambassador Vic Lecaros, says his government will allow the North Koreans to travel through Manila.

"The Philippine government has allowed the transit in Manila of the 21 North Korean refugees who are presently taking refuge at the Embassy of South Korea in Beijing," he announced. " As in past instances, they are to transit through Manila and leave on the first available flight. Basically, they change planes here."

Chinese officials have not confirmed the information.

The asylum-seekers have been sheltering in a South Korean diplomatic office for weeks, after using false identity papers or other tricks to get past guards and barbed wire surrounding most diplomatic buildings in Beijing.

In the past year, more than 80 North Koreans have used embassies as a stepping stone to get to South Korea. They are among the tens of thousands of North Koreans illegally living in China after fleeing hunger and repression in their communist homeland, which borders China.

China has a treaty obligation to return any illegal North Korean migrants it catches to their homeland. But human rights groups say returned refugees face prison and brutal treatment in North Korea. China does not want to damage its international reputation by sending high profile migrants back to an uncertain fate.

The situation is getting more complicated for China every day. Tuesday, another 15 North Koreans used a large bicycle as an improvised ladder to scramble over a two-meter high wall protecting a school run by the German Embassy in Beijing.

German officials say negotiations are underway on the fate of the refugees who are said to be mostly in their 20s and 30s.

Monday saw a failed attempt to win asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador, when dozens of police intercepted a dozen North Korean refugees.

In Monday's incident, plainclothes and uniformed police nabbed eight of the asylum seekers, four others apparently escaped.