N. Koreans seek asylum from China

Group of 25 dashes into Spanish Embassy in Beijing for refuge

March 15, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Threatening to commit suicide if forced to return home, a group of 25 North Koreans rushed into the Spanish Embassy here yesterday seeking asylum and refuge.

The asylum seekers said in a statement that they were fleeing oppression and hunger in North Korea, where the number who have died of famine and related illnesses since the mid-1990s is estimated in the millions.

Members of the group, six families and two orphans, said they had tried to defect before but were captured by Chinese security forces, deported to North Korea and detained in camps.

Hours later, Premier Zhu Rongji said China had "reached agreement" on their status and said details would be announced soon.

"China's Foreign Ministry has consulted with the relevant embassy and has reached agreement with them. This matter will be handled in accordance with law. Please give it more patience. The result will be clear very soon," Zhu said in a nationally televised news conference during the annual session of China's legislature.

The bid for asylum put Beijing in an awkward position. China has closer relations with North Korea than does any other country and has a treaty requiring it to repatriate North Koreans who flee here.

Human rights advocates have repeatedly criticized China for refusing to grant refugee status to North Koreans who, if forced to return home, are almost certain to face harsh punishment from the government in Pyongyang.

When the North Koreans approached the Embassy, a Chinese guard posted at the gate grabbed one man by the arm, but the North Koreans all arrived inside safely. Upon reaching the Embassy's front steps, one man thrust his fists in the air and grinned in triumph while another flashed the "OK" sign with his right hand.

"We are now at the point of such desperation and live in such fear of persecution within North Korea that we have come to the decision to risk our lives for freedom rather than passively await our doom," a statement from the group said. "Some of us carry poison on our person to commit suicide if the Chinese authorities should choose once again to send us back to North Korea."

Chinese security guards cordoned off the area around the Embassy with crime scene tape and blocked at least one entry route with a tow truck. Officers remained on guard last night.

Yesterday's asylum bid was the second here in 10 months. Last June, a family of seven North Koreans stayed in a United Nations office for four days. The family was permitted to go to Seoul, South Korea, after passing through Singapore and the Philippines.

The Koreans' rush for the building appeared carefully coordinated and well executed, no mean feat. The group arrived outside the Spanish Embassy before 10 a.m. in a small tour bus. The asylum seekers were disguised as a Chinese tour group, a common sight in Beijing.

The Koreans wore matching red and blue baseball caps as tour groups here often do. They also wore typical Chinese-style clothes, including sweat pants, jeans, flannel shirts, jackets and sneakers.

Two Koreans distracted a guard, creating a chance for the rest to rush in. The asylum seekers ranged in age from 10 to 52.

It was not clear why the group chose the Spanish Embassy, although the compound's open gate might have been factor.

There are an estimated 200,000 North Koreans hiding in China. In addition to hunger and repression, the asylum seekers said they fled their homeland because they wanted to see the outside world.

North Korea is the world's last Stalinist state and among the world's most isolated countries. Its people are largely cut off from outside sources of news. President Bush has called North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, an "axis of evil."

Describing their escape from North Korea across the border into northeastern China, the asylum seekers told of fording rivers, begging for food and sleeping in barns or in makeshift huts on snow-covered hillsides. They said they received help from ethnic Korean Christians in China.

After some North Koreans were caught, they were sent to detention camps back home where some said they saw beatings. Choi Byong-sop, a 52-year-old former coal miner, was caught trying to cross the border in February 1997. North Korea's State Security Agency detained him for 12 days.

"We were treated like beasts amid all kinds of severe punishment, such as beatings and kickings," said Choi, who is a member of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party. Choi described guards beating a prisoner who was caught with five bullets.

"His hands were so badly beaten with a leather belt that they swelled to the size of a large loaf of bread," he said in a statement.

After his release, Choi fled to China with his family.

"We want to live a decent life in South Korea," he said. "My first son wants to become a Christian missionary. My daughter wants to be trained to be a pianist. My last son wants to be a soccer player in South Korea."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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