North Korean Asylum-Seekers Arrive in Philippines

North Korean asylum-seekers who sought refuge in the Spanish Embassy in Beijing and threatened suicide if sent back to their communist homeland arrived Friday in the Philippines, bound for capitalist South Korea.

The United Nations' refugee agency thanked China and Spain for quickly resolving the 25 asylum-seekers' plight. They had dashed past Chinese guardight late Friday, Manila airport authorities said. Journalists were prevented from approaching the group or watching them disembark.

They were expected to leave for Seoul on Saturday, airport officials said. A South Korean deputy foreign minister, Lee Tae-sik, confirmed that his government was trying to bring the asylum seekers there.

The asylum bid had presented China with a political conundrum. Beijing is obliged by a treaty with Pyongyang to return fleeing North Koreans but risked alienating world opinion if sent the asylum-seekers home to the hard-line communist dictatorship.

Human rights and aid groups have criticized China for sending back North Koreans caught fleeing famine and repression.

The asylum-seekers left Beijing in the afternoon, about an hour after Premier Zhu Rongji, at a nationally televised news conference, said his government had found a solution to what could have been a lengthy diplomatic snarl.

"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," Zhu said.

A convoy of two sport-utility vehicles a van and the ambassador's Mercedes limousine later left the Spanish Embassy, pulling out onto the tree-lined street of diplomatic compounds.

The vehicles were crowded with people, but their darkened windows kept reporters from seeing who the passengers were.

Chinese security officers who had cordoned off the embassy relaxed visibly after the convoy departed. Police in blue uniforms shook each other's hands, and armed police in green uniforms applauded.

The North Koreans had asked to be allowed to go to South Korea, saying they might be killed if sent back. Some said they were carrying rat poison to kill themselves if they were sent home.

Beijing's ties with North Korea are sentimental as well as practical. They date to an alliance against U.S.-led forces in the 1950-53 Korean War, an event that still resonates with the politically influential Chinese military. Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Pyongyang last September and assured North Korean leader Kim Jong Il of the "long-term and steady development" of good relations.

Norbert Vollertsen, a German doctor who once lived in North Korea and helped to organize the asylum bid, said more such actions were planned, with a growing number of North Koreans each time.

"They can't stop 25 people," he said, "and they will not stop for sure 150 people."

On Thursday morning, two North Korean asylum-seekers approached the Spanish Embassy first, occupying the guards while others streamed in through the open gate. The men then shook off the guards and rushed in themselves.

Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, a Tokyo-based organization that assisted the group, distributed statements by some members.

One man, who used a pseudonym, said hunger forced him and his wife to flee to China in 1996, but they were caught and sent home. He described being beaten and kicked in detention back in North Korea before the couple escaped the country again last year.

"North Korea," he wrote, "is a gigantic prison."