Laos has sent nine North Koreans who fled their totalitarian homeland through China last month back to China, a senior Seoul official said Tuesday, indicating that they are at risk of being repatriated to North Korea.
The nine North Korean defectors, aged between 15 and 23, were deported to China late Monday (local time) after being rounded up by the Lao authorities on May 10, the senior official at Seoul‘s foreign ministry said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that South Korea had asked Laos to send them to Seoul, but Laos “unexpectedly” rejected Seoul’s plea.
“We have been in close contact with relevant governments to deal with the case,” the official said.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se held a meeting with senior officials on Monday night, shortly after the nine North Koreans -- seven men and two women -- were sent back to China, the official said.
The ministry also set up a task force, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Kyung-soo, to handle the case, he said, adding that his government confirmed that they landed in China.
Laos has become one of the major transit points for North Korean defectors, who flee their homeland through China with the aim of eventually entering South Korea.
A South Korean aid worker in Laos, who helped the North Koreans, told Yonhap News Agency by telephone that the defectors had been interrogated by a North Korean diplomat during their detention.
“One of interrogators was a man who spoke the North Korean language well,” said the aid worker, who is only identified by the surname Joo. “The man is an official at the North Korean embassy here.”
In a regular press briefing on Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young declined to comment on the case, citing the government‘s policy of protecting the safety of North Korean defectors.
However, Cho said South Korea “has continued to make efforts with relevant countries to bring North Korean defectors to the Republic of Korea (South Korea).”
Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Laos, Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, which is presently home to more than 25,000 North Korean defectors.
North Korean defectors face harsh punishments and even execution after being repatriated from China, which does not recognize them as asylum seekers, according to defectors in South Korea and human rights activists.