- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

SEOUL With smiles and waves, 25 North Korean asylum-seekers reached Seoul yesterday, ending a journey that began when they barged into the Spanish Embassy in China last week.

China avoided a diplomatic problem by expelling the North Koreans to the Philippines. Sending them back to likely punishment in North Korea risked alienating world opinion.

The 14 adults and 11 children landed at Inchon International Airport outside Seoul aboard a Korean Air flight that brought them from Manila.

"We're glad to be finally in South Korea, which is better off than the northern side," Choi Byung Sup said, speaking on behalf of the group. "We want to live freely here, abiding by South Korean law and do whatever we want to do."

After a few questions from reporters, the North Koreans were whisked away by officials for debriefing. They are required to receive as much as three months of education on capitalistic lifestyle, including how to open a bank account, and how to use the subway and personal computers.

It was one of the largest North Korean defections of recent years to South Korea. In 1996, 17 North Koreans, including 16 from a single family, defected to South Korea via Hong Kong.

After the North Koreans barged into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing on Thursday, China tried to avoid angering North Korea, its longtime ally. It called the asylum-seekers lawbreakers and flew them to the Philippines a third country .

There was no immediate North Korean comment.

It was the second time in less than a year that the Philippine government has allowed North Korean asylum-seekers from China to pass through the country on their way to South Korea.

Last June, a family of seven North Korean asylum-seekers sought refuge in a U.N. office in Beijing. After four days, they were allowed to leave for South Korea via a route that took them to Singapore, then to Seoul through the Philippines.

South Korean officials said the issue would not have a big impact on inter-Korean relations, which remain frozen amid tension between the United States and North Korea.

"It's a humanitarian decision, which we hope North Korea would not interpret otherwise," said Kim Eui-taek, a spokesman for South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

The latest North Korean group comprises 22 members from six families, a farmer and two orphaned children.

South Korean officials, who interviewed them in Manila, said the defectors are from Hamkyong Province in the North's northeastern region, where food shortages are known to be more severe than in other areas.

The number of North Korean defectors rose from 71 in 1998 to 148 in 1999, 312 in 2000 and 583 in 2001. There have been 138 so far this year.

Most North Koreans defect through China, which is bound by a treaty with Pyongyang to repatriate them. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of North Koreans are believed to be living in hiding in China. Many have been caught and sent back.

The Beijing government maintains that those North Koreans are temporarily staying in China for food.

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