By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Fewer North Koreans are fleeing to South Korea, possibly due to tighter border control and cases of asylum seekers being returned home by China, a U.N. rights envoy said on Tuesday.
Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation in North Korea, said that in the first nine months of this year 1,041 North Koreans arrived in South Korea, compared to 1,509 people for all of 2012 and 2,706 people in 2011.
"This represents a reversal of the trend of steady increase in the number of annual arrivals since 1998, possibly due to recently tightened border control and increased incidents of refoulement," Darusman wrote in a statement presented to a U.N. General Assembly human rights committee.
Darusman said the international law principle of non-refoulement - an obligation not to return asylum seekers or refugees to a place where their life or liberty would be at risk - clearly applies to North Koreans who have left without permission.
Communist North Korea is one of the world's most reclusive and repressive nations, accused of starving and torturing thousands of people in a network of prison camps while taking extraordinary steps to prevent its citizens from fleeing to South Korea or other nations.
In late May, nine North Koreans, mostly children and reportedly all orphans, were repatriated from Laos through China to North Korea, while in February of last year the United Nations raised concerns about the possibility of 31 North Koreans being returned to Pyongyang after they were arrested in China.
"All countries where escapees from the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) are seeking refuge or transiting must protect them, treat them humanely and abstain from returning them," Darusman said in his statement.
A representative of the Chinese U.N. mission said that the nine North Koreans who came from Laos had valid visas to enter China and had been released. The Chinese representative said that Beijing had not received a request for them to be returned home.
The Chinese representative also said that North Koreans illegally entering China were not refugees because "they enter China for economic reasons, therefore we have the right to deal with these people according to our law because they are illegally entering."
'GROSS HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS'
The Laos U.N. mission told the world body's human rights committee it had addressed the issue of the North Korean defectors in accordance with international law and had worked with the Chinese and North Korean embassies on the issue.
Darusman said there has been no improvement in the dire situation of human rights in North Korea and that the government has continued to pursue "a belligerent military policy," while the majority of North Koreans are being denied food.
Darusman is also a member of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea along with Sonja Biserko of Serbia and Justice Michael Kirby of Australia, who chairs the inquiry. They are due to deliver a final report in March 2014.
"The entire body of evidence gathered so far points to what appear to be large-scale patterns of systematic and gross human rights violations," Kirby told the General Assembly's human rights committee on Tuesday, adding that Pyongyang had refused to cooperate with the inquiry.
North Korea has dismissed the inquiry as a "political plot" to force a leadership change in Pyongyang.
Inmates in North Korea's prison camps suffered starvation and torture and described "unspeakable atrocities" comparable to Nazi abuses uncovered after World War Two, the U.N. inquiry said in a preliminary report in September.
The inquiry was established in March, following pressure by Japan, South Korea and Western powers to begin building a case for possible criminal prosecution. North Korea is not a member of the International Criminal Court, but the Security Council can ask the court to investigate non-signatories.
(Editing by Will Dunham)