UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. human rights chief criticized Laos and China on Friday for returning nine young defectors — all reportedly orphans — to North Korea, where they could face harsh treatment.
Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay urged Chinese and Laotian authorities to publicly clarify the fate of the nine defectors and the conditions of their return, which apparently violated international law, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency said the defectors, aged 15 to 23, entered Laos through China on May 9 and were caught by Laotian authorities May 16.
The Geneva-based human rights office requested that North Korea's government provide independent and immediate access to the group, which includes up to five minors, del Buey said.
"The human rights office is extremely concerned for the protection of this group ... who are at risk of severe punishment and ill-treatment upon their return," he said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the Obama administration is "very concerned" about reports that the defectors were sent back to North Korea and is monitoring the situation.
"We urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories," she told reporters in Washington.
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.
Del Buey said Pillay's office received "credible information" that the nine defectors were returned to North Korea via China, in apparent violation of the international legal principle of "non-refoulement," which protects victims of persecution from being returned to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.
"The high commissioner's office is dismayed that the governments of Laos and China appear to have abrogated their non-refoulement obligations, especially given the vulnerability of that group, all of whom are reported to be orphans," del Buey said.
The Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper in Seoul, citing unidentified South Korean government officials, reported Thursday that the seven males and two females were flown home Tuesday via China despite a request from South Korea that Beijing not repatriate them.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry 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.
Close to 25,000 North Koreans have gone 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.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington