China Lets Refugees Move On

The contents of kitchen cabinets and a refrigerator are spilled across a floor in a Kailua-Kona, Hawaii kitchen after the earthquake that shook Hawaii Sunday Oct. 15, 2006. Similar damage was reported in many homes on the Big Island of Hawaii.
A family of seven North Korean asylum-seekers left China for South Korea on Friday, taking a secrecy-shrouded route aimed at skirting political sensitivities.

The family took refuge in a U.N. office in Beijing earlier this week, saying they feared persecution at home and pleading to be sent to South Korea.

China — in what looked like a bid to save face ahead of the July 13 vote to determine the site of the 2008 Olympics — gave the family rare permission to leave for a third country.

"China had no objection to their departure," said Colin Mitchell, head of the China office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "There were some health concerns in the family that could be more adequately addressed elsewhere."

The family's circuitous route took them hundreds of miles southwest before looping back toward Seoul, a little over an hour east of Beijing by direct flight.

The seven first flew to Singapore, then to the Philippine capital, Manila. It appeared they would not set foot outside either city's international airport, and officials kept media at bay.

South Korea's Asiana Airlines said it had reservations for the family on a flight leaving Manila on Saturday afternoon, and Lee Young-hwa of the Japan-based activist group Rescue the North Korean People said they would resettle in South Korea.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement welcoming China's decision to let the seven go "to a third country out of humanitarian considerations," but would not confirm they were coming to Seoul.

An official at the Manila airport, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the family would spend the night there and fly Saturday to South Korea.

The issue was prickly for the Philippines, which clearly did not want to suffer any diplomatic fallout a year after establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea.

"They are just transiting from Singapore to Korea," the airport official said. "They are in the custody of the airline. They will not enter Philippine territory."

Security at the airport was extremely tight. Four hours after the Singapore Airlines flight arrived, reporters had not seen the family disembark. The jet's lights were turned off, and it was unclear if the family was still inside or had been whisked away.

A customs official who went aboard earlier said the family was in high spirits as they ate, surrounded by immigration officials.

The family — a couple, their two teen-age children, two grandparents and a nephew — lived in secret in northeast China after fleeing North Korea in 1999, U.N. officials said.

Amnesty International said they could face punishment ranging from seven years in prison to execution if they returned to North Korea, which considers it a serious offense to leave the country without permission and to criticize the communist regime.

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China is bound by treaty with longtime ally North Korea to deport fleeing North Koreans. Last year, China returned seven North Korean asylum-seekers over U.N. objections, and South Korean officials said six were imprisoned.

But with Beijing in the final two weeks of a hard-fought bid for the 2008 Olympics, China cannot afford to raise international ire by sending the family back.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the Bush administration has decided to remain neutral on China's bid.

UNHCR officials have said the family has a compelling case for being treated as political refugees. They cited a book by at least one of the children that painted a grim picture of famine in North Korea and the family's flight to China.

The book, published last year in South Korea, contains color drawings of soldiers in guard towers, people in handcuffs and a stick figure eating a rat.

The family went to the UNHCR office in Beijing on Tuesday.

Their asylum bid focused attention on tens of thousands of their countrymen hiding in China after fleeing a famine that has killed as many as 2 million North Koreans and left the heavily armed communist nation dependent on outside food aid.

In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said his organization hoped the family's plight "will improve the dialogue with Chinese authorities so we can properly address the plight of North Koreans in China — especially those who left for refugee-related reasons."

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