Five North Korean defectors arrived in South Korea after spending three years in a South Korean consulate in China, a South Korean official said Wednesday.
China has allowed them to travel to South Korea via a third country, the official said, a step Beijing usually takes to handle those involved in high-profile cases.
The five people, who include three family members of a late South Korean soldier taken prisoner during the 1950-53 Korean War, are being questioned by South Korean authorities, the official said, in a routine process for new North Korean arrivals.
The official did not give details on the two others and asked not to be identified, citing policy.
The three had been waiting for their trip to South Korea since 2009, when they entered the South Korean consulate general in Beijing seeking asylum.
Their trip came as North Korea defied Chinese and other international calls to halt a rocket launch. The North has repeatedly vowed to go ahead with the launch sometime between April 12 and 16 to put a satellite into orbit.
However, South Korea, the United States and other regional powers suspect the launch could be a cover for testing the North’s ballistic missile technology.
Their trip also came more than a week after Chinese President Hu Jintao showed flexible position on the issue of North Korean defectors during his summit talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Hu was in Seoul to attend an international nuclear security summit.
The move came weeks after China has detained dozens of North Korean defectors and reportedly sent some of them back to their communist homeland where they could face harsh punishment.