SEOUL, South Korea: Human rights groups on Thursday demanded that North Korea account for nine of its citizens reportedly repatriated after fleeing to Laos.
South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said the seven men and two women were flown home Tuesday via China despite a request from South Korea that Beijing not repatriate them. The report cited an anonymous Foreign Ministry official in Seoul expressing strong regret over the Chinese decision. South Korea’s Foreign Ministrydeclined to confirm the report.
Close to 25,000 North Koreans have left their authoritarian country since the end of the Korean War, the vast majority via China and then onward via Southeast Asian countries including Laos, Thailand and Vietnam before flying to Seoul.
China, North Korea’s foremost ally, does not recognize the defectors as asylum seekers and has been known to return them to Pyongyang.
Activists say defectors caught leaving North Korea without state permission could face prison and even torture.
Under North Korean law, defectors face a minimum of five years of hard labor and as much as life in prison or the death penalty in cases deemed particularly serious.
“North Korea has to come clean on where these nine refugees are and publicly guarantee that they will not be harmed or retaliated against for having fled the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “As a result of their return, they are at dire risk.”
The Yonhap report said the defectors, aged between 15 and 23, entered Laos through China on May 9 and were caught by Laotian authorities May 16.
According to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, a delegation from the Laotian capital of Vientiane visited North Korea on May 20. Laos sent the defectors to China on Monday before they were sent to North Korea a day later, Yonhap reported.
Several attempts to contact officials in Laos, a secretive and strict socialist regime in Southeast Asia, were unsuccessful.
“It’s tragic and disappointing,” Kim Eun-young, an activist with the Seoul-based Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, said Thursday of the reported repatriation. “We fear defectors will now feel more intimidated about trying to come to South Korea through Laos or other Southeast Asian countries.”
In Seoul, protesters pleaded with the South Korean government to step up efforts to stop the repatriation of the North Koreans. Nine “young lives are in your hands,” read one sign addressed to Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se.
The number of North Koreans who settle in South Korea had been rising over several years before peaking in 2009 with nearly 3,000 arrivals. The South Korean constitution guarantees North Koreans citizenship after the government can establish that they are not spies.
Flows have slowed significantly since then. Last year, just over 1,500 arrived in South Korea, according to the government in Seoul.
There are unconfirmed reports that North Korea has boosted security at the Chinese border in recent years to slow the flow of defectors. Over the past year, North Korea has publicized the return of some defectors to North Korea.
The U.S. government, which supports efforts to promote reform in North Korea and is a strong ally of South Korea, said in a statement that it was concerned about the reports of the repatriation and urged “all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories.”
The Korean Peninsula has been divided by a 4-kilometer-wide (2.5-mile-wide) Demilitarized Zone since the Korean War ended with an armistice in 1953.