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North Korean Asylum Seekers Arrive in Seoul - 2002-09-12

Three dozen North Korean asylum seekers arrived in Seoul Thursday after leaving foreign diplomatic facilities in Beijing. They make up the largest group of defectors to arrive in South Korea on a single day.

The 36 North Koreans arrived in two groups at Incheon International Airport near Seoul Thursday. One group came from the Philippines and the other from Singapore, after China allowed them to leave Beijing the day before. Beijing requires them to transit through third countries to appease North Korea, a Chinese ally.

One defector told reporters that coming to South Korea was like a dream and says he fled because he was disappointed with the North Korean government.

Among the asylum seekers are two infants and a young boy. They had slipped into the South Korean embassy in Beijing over the past several weeks or had taken refuge at a German school in the Chinese capital last weeks. South Korean officials are interviewing the North Koreans and will provide them with special training courses to adapt to life in capitalist South Korea, which is profoundly different from the Stalinist North.

So far this year, 729 North Korean have defected to South Korea compared with about 580 last year. Most came through China, which shares a long, porous border with the North. Aid workers say up to 300,000 North Koreans are now hiding in China after fleeing from hunger, poverty and oppression in their homeland.

Beijing regards them as economic migrants and refuses to grant them refugee status.

China has an agreement with North Korea to repatriate defectors, but it has allowed some to leave the country when their cases have received international publicity. South Korean officials say that about two dozen other asylum seekers remain in the country's Beijing embassy, awaiting permission to leave China.

Thursday's defections come at a sensitive time for the two Koreas, which remain technically at war after their conflict ended in 1953 without a peace treaty. The two countries have recently stepped up their dialogue after months of tensions. North Korea is also trying to improve relations with the United States and Japan. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il holds a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in Pyongyang on September 17.