Activist: Smiling NKorean defectors told of misery

South Korea: Before they were detained in Laos and sent home, a group of young North Korean defectors smiled and teased each other as they told an activist how some of them were beaten with sticks for trying to steal noodles in their homeland.

They talked about a South Korean movie they saw, and wondered if prison cells there were really as clean as the film depicted.

The South Korean activist said the encounter provided a brief glimpse into the lives of North Korea’s “ggotjebi,” an underclass of vagrants who stay alive by begging, scavenging and stealing. It’s not clear how many exist, or what will become of the nine defectors repatriated last week.

They range in age from 14 to 22, according to two South Korean activists who said they were familiar with the defectors. Most are believed to be orphans found roaming around a Chinese border town by a South Korean missionary who took them in.

The defectors, seven male and two female, were flown home from China last week. They had been detained in Laos some 17 days earlier, along with a South Korean missionary who tried to help them get to a foreign embassy in the Southeast Asian country, according to South Korean officials and activists in Seoul.

North Korea alleged Wednesday that the youths were not defectors but had been kidnapped by South Koreans.

A spokesman for the Central Committee of North Korea’s Red Cross Society accused South Korean traffickers of attempting to abduct the teens, and subjecting them to brainwashing and beatings.