MANILA, Philippines - North Korean defectors used the Philippines as a transit point to flee the Kim Jong-il regime, according to a US embassy cable released by WikiLeaks.
As many as 500 refugees from the reclusive state had traveled through the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) annually before they headed off to South Korea, said cable 05MANILA249, which was sent January 14, 2005 by then US Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Ricciardone.
Ricciardone quoted Rico Salcedo, then officer in charge of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Manila, that the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs "had quietly instituted an agreement with the South Korean government to facilitate the transit of North Korean refugees from third countries to South Korea."
"The volume of transits had increased significantly during the last two years, reaching nearly 500 refugees annually, traveling in groups as large as 60 people," the cable said.
It added that then South Korean Political Counselor Kwon Sae-young told US embassy officials that all of the North Koreans transiting the Philippines to Seoul originated from China.
"Kwon bristled at the use of the word 'refugees,' insisting instead that they be called 'displaced persons,'" the cable said.
"Kwon said his government appreciated the Philippines' low-key and helpful approach to this issue," it added.
The South Korean official also clarified that none of the defectors entered Manila as they all only transited NAIA using travel documents provided by the South Korean embassy in Beijing.
The US embassy memo said the Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia to have signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and to have an institutionalized regime of refugee protection.
It added that then DFA Director for Northeast Asia Manina Rueca told a US embassy political officer that she would welcome Washington-funded humanitarian assistance for North Koreans in the Philippines.
"However, she reacted coolly to the idea of a US refugee resettlement program for North Koreans in the Philippines, calling it 'very sensitive.' She cautioned that any potential program would require extensive discussion and consultation," it added.
The memo was among the more than the 3,000 new cables that whistleblower group WikiLeaks released on the Internet last week.