Twenty North Korean asylum-seekers pushed their way past Chinese guards and rushed onto the grounds of the Spanish Embassy in Beijing on Thursday, and threatened suicide if they are sent back.

The North Koreans, including men, women and youngsters, ran through the front gate of the embassy, on a tree-lined street in the Chinese capital. One of the North Koreans struggled briefly with a Chinese guard on the gate, but broke free and rushed in with the others.

Within minutes, dozens of armed green-uniformed Chinese guards converged on the compound. A group of Spanish diplomats came out of the embassy building, talked to some of the guards, and then went back in. A man who picked up the telephone at the embassy said no one was available for comment.

The incident presented a dilemma for the Chinese government, which is a close ally of North Korea but has been criticized by human rights and aid groups for refusing to grant refugee status to North Koreans fleeing famine and repression in the hardline communist state.

A half-hour after the group ran into the compound, more than three dozen security forces from various Chinese agencies were crowded outside the embassy, forming a cordon and shooing away bystanders while shouting "Sorry, sorry" in both Chinese and English.

People who helped the North Koreans distributed written statements from the asylum-seekers, including some individual statements and one group news release that said they wanted to go to South Korea.

The statement described them as six families and three individuals. It said they totaled 25 people, but reporters only saw about 20.

"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," the group statement 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," said the printed-out statement, written in English.

It included a list of names, ages and hometowns, but said many of the names were pseudonyms adopted to protect them from any attempted reprisals.

There was no indication why the refugees chose the Spanish Embassy. However, that compound's front gate is wide open as a matter of course every day, in contrast to more heavily guarded embassies in the diplomatic district.

There were also individual statements from other members of the group, including a farmer, a former policeman, two 16-year-old orphaned girls and a miner. All had been translated into English.

One man, who said he was giving his correct full name, Choi Byong-sop, wrote that he was 52 and a former coal miner and one-time member of the North Korean Workers Party, the ruling party.

He said he fled to China in 1997 with his wife and three children but was caught and returned to North Korea, where guards beat and tortured him.

As a former party member, he wrote, "I would be very strictly persecuted and most likely executed if I am caught again. However, I am willing to risk my life for freedom in South Korea."

He added: "We want to live a decent life in freedom in South Korea. 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 statement said that for many, this was at least the second attempt to use China to gain freedom. It said some had previously been caught by Chinese security officials and returned to North Korea, where "we endured months of detention ... that can only be described as atrocious."

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 circuitous route that took them to Singapore, then to Seoul via the Philippines.