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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 08:26 GMT
N Koreans storm Spanish embassy
The group celebrates as they manage to get into the Spanish compound
Celebrations as they make it into the compound
Twenty-five North Koreans have forced their way into the Spanish embassy in the Chinese capital, Beijing to seek political asylum.

The group pushed past helpless guards outside the embassy gates at about 1000 (0200 GMT), punching the air in jubilation as they went witnesses said.

The group pushes into the Spanish embassy
They took the chance to surprise guards
A brief statement released on behalf of the group said they had been forced to flee North Korea in desperation, and they threatened to commit suicide if China tried to send them back.

But China has said its initial examination has found the group, who say they want to go to South Korea, are not refugees.

Beijing regards North Koreans in China as economic migrants who must be sent home.


We appeal to you on our knees and with tears

Asylum seekers' statement
A foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Chinese Government was seeking to negotiate "a proper solution", to the incident.

The South Korean Government has reportedly stressed to the Chinese authorities that the asylum seekers should not be forcibly repatriated to the North.

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Beijing says the North Koreans appear to have chosen the Spanish embassy simply because its security is much more relaxed than many others in Beijing.

Tight security

The group, which includes 13 men and 12 women aged from about 14 to 52, was reportedly able to rush in through the embassy's front gate, despite the attempts of Chinese security guards to stop them.

Defection rates
2001 - 583
2000 - 312
1999 - 148
Source: NIS
Many of those in the group had fled to China before, but are being forcibly repatriated, where they say they suffered imprisonment and torture.

"We have come to the decision to risk our lives for freedom rather than passively await our doom," their statement said.

The embassy has now been completely sealed off by police and paramilitary troops.

Little is known about the North Koreans. The statement passed to reporters says they are ordinary farmers and workers.

The statement also claims they are carrying poison, and says they are willing to commit suicide if the Chinese government attempts to send them back to North Korea.

Refugees or economic migrants?

There are estimated to be up to 300,000 North Korean refugees living inside north-east China having fled their drought- and famine-ridden homeland.

Beijing largely turns a blind eye to them, but refuses to grant them refugee status or allow the UN High Commission for Refugees to set up camps.

Last June, a family of seven North Koreans took refuge in the Beijing offices of the United Nations refugee agency and demanded asylum. They were later allowed to go to South Korea via a third country.

However, that incident did not change Beijing's position that North Koreans in China are not refugees but economic migrants who must be sent home.

Correspondents say the current situation could pose problems for the Chinese Government which has close ties to North Korea.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
"The whole incident had been carefully planned"
See also:

14 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Koreans' embassy dash
13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
US offers N Korea 'unconditional' talks
03 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
'Record numbers' defect to S Korea
26 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
China's North Koreans in hiding
22 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
POW flees North Korea
14 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Korean talks collapse
13 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Man flees North Korea twice
30 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
N Koreans reach southern refuge
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