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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 10:34 GMT
Defectors arrive in South Korea
Some of the North Korean defectors prepare to board a flight to Seoul
The group was given medical checks in Manila
A group of North Korean defectors has arrived in the South Korean capital Seoul on a flight from the Philippines.

The 25 North Koreans had made a dramatic dash to freedom, bursting into the Spanish embassy in the Chinese capital Beijing on Thursday.

China allowed the group to leave despite an agreement with North Korea which stipulates that all defectors must be sent back home.

The six families and two orphaned girls are the largest single group of North Korean defectors since the end of the Korean War.

The 13 men and 12 women, aged from about 14 to 52, had threatened to commit suicide if China tried to repatriate them. China put them on a flight to Manila on Friday, where the group spent the weekend

Staging post

It was the second time in under a year that the authorities in Manila had allowed the Philippines to be used as a staging post in this way.

North Korean enters the Spanish embassy, Beijing
The group pushed into the Spanish embassy
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo "allowed them to stay for humanitarian reasons and the South Koreans lobbied hard for that," said foreign minister spokesman Victorian Lecaros.

But he said that the group's stopover in Manila owed more to geography than politics.

"We ought not to interpret this incident as a precedent," he added.

China had initially canvassed five countries in an urgent search to find one that would take the group.

Now in Seoul, the North Koreans will spend their first few days in a safe house, where they will receive medical checks and be debriefed by officials.

The BBC's correspondent in Seoul, Caroline Gluck, says this latest major defection is bound to have repercussions.

Many thousands in hiding

Human rights groups are afraid there may be a further crackdown against North Korean escapees by the Chinese authorities, she says.

In general China does not consider them as refugees but economic migrants and has repatriated those caught on its territory under a bilateral treaty with North Korea.

Up to 300,000 North Koreans are thought to be hiding in China, having escaped their country because of serious food shortages or for political reasons.

Some activists say they are preparing fresh attempts to get more refugees into other foreign embassies in Beijing.

South Korea's Ministry of Unification is already reviewing its policy on how best to handle the increasing number of defectors, with arrivals roughly doubling each year.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Caroline Gluck
"The group looked relaxed and happy despite the... tensions of the last few days"
See also:

16 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
N Koreans wait to leave Philippines
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
14 Nov 01 | Asia-Pacific
Korean talks collapse
15 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
Former spies riot in South Korea
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