SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Human rights groups have demanded that North Korea guarantee the safety of nine of its citizens who reportedly fled to Laos, only to be apprehended and sent back home.
Seven males and two females were flown home Tuesday via China despite a request from South Korea that Beijing not repatriate them, the Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper in Seoul reported Thursday, citing unidentified South Korean government officials. The Yonhap news agency cited a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul in its report that said the nine are aged 15 to 23.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry has declined to confirm the reports.
The Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Thursday in a statement that it is trying to locate the defectors and expressed concern that they did not receive a chance to have their asylum claims assessed.
"UNHCR is deeply concerned about the safety and fundamental human rights of these individuals if they are returned" to North Korea, High Commissioner António Guterres said.
On Friday, activists criticized Laos during a rally outside its embassy in Seoul.
"We are here to call on Laos not to deport North Korean defectors because there is concern they may be tortured when sent back," said Lee Ho-taek, head of a group that provides refugees with support.
Close to 25,000 North Koreans have come to South Korea since the end of the Korean War. The vast majority of them hid in China and Southeast Asian countries including Laos, Thailand and Vietnam before flying to Seoul.
China, North Korea's foremost ally, does not recognize defectors as asylum seekers and has been known to return them to Pyongyang.
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. Activists say they could face torture.
"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 entered Laos through China on May 9 and were caught by Laotian authorities May 16. 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."
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 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.
Associated Press writers Chris Brummitt and Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.