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Incredible journey leads family to freedom

Seoul - A family of 17, the largest group of North Korean defectors since the Korean War, arrived in Seoul yesterday, six weeks after beginning an epic escape through China and Hong Kong.

The band of men, women and young children included a security guard whose job was to stop such defections through the wild and remote North Korea-China border.

Their incredible journey was financed by relatives in the United States. They sent money so that the family could pay guides to protect them during a month-long trek, which started on 26 October and covered the length of China.

The band passed from one safe house to another among two million ethnic Koreans in China, posing as a group of travelling rural labourers and occasionally working in the fields. On 23 November, they were smuggled into Hong Kong and yesterday made the three-hour flight to freedom to Kimpo Airport in the South Korean capital, Seoul

When Kim Kyong-ho, the 62-year-old patriarch of the group, met the brother he had not seen since the height of the 1950-53 Korean War, he exclaimed loudly: "Older Brother." Kim Kyong-tae, 70, embraced him and said the pair were separated in the war. Kim Kyong-ho, now missing half his left index finger, ended up in North Korea as confusion reigned at the end of the conflict. He told how he was persecuted there for his South Korean roots.

Kim Kyong-tae said: "I didn't know if my younger brother was dead or alive. I'd heard rumours he was in the US. But when I saw pictures of the family ... I knew that it was him."

The only person missing was Choi Yong-do, the father of Kim's wife, Choi Hyon-sil. From New York, he organised the money for the group to bribe their way through China and into Hong Kong.

The escape was a propaganda coup for South Korea, but there was nervous speculation about how Seoul would cope if the defection was the start of a refugee surge from impoverished North Korea, where floods have caused a year-long famine. An uncontrolled refugee exodus is part of a nightmare scenario for Seoul, which would be left to pick up the pieces at a cost of billions of dollars.