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U.N. concerned about North Korean defectors

Fifteen North Korean defectors including eight repatriated to North Korea pose at a Christmas party in China in 2011 in this photo released Friday by Suzanne Scholte, a North Korea human rights activist. (Yonhap News)
Fifteen North Korean defectors including eight repatriated to North Korea pose at a Christmas party in China in 2011 in this photo released Friday by Suzanne Scholte, a North Korea human rights activist. (Yonhap News)
A United Nations human rights investigator and the U.N. refugee agency voiced concern on Thursday about reports of nine North Korean defectors, some of them possibly children, who were sent back by Laos to North Korea via China this week.

Chinese authorities are obliged under international law not to return them to North Korea, where they could face persecution and possibly death, Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, said.

“I have very real concerns about the penalties and treatment they could face if returned to DPRK and all the concerned authorities have an urgent responsibility to ensure their protection,” Darusman said in a statement issued in Geneva.

He said no one should be forced to return to North Korea where “they may face persecution or severe punishment, including torture and the death penalty.”

Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, voiced grave concern over the safety of the deportees, whose asylum claims he said had not been assessed.

In a separate statement he said his agency was seeking information about their whereabouts. All states had a duty to refrain from measures that could lead to returning a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.

The nine youths, all believed to be orphans, were sent back to China on May 27 after being arrested by Laotian police, Darusman said. Guterres said that they were arrested on May 10 in Laos and that five of the nine were children.

“I am extremely disappointed that the Laos government appears to have abdicated its protection responsibilities in this way, and I urge the Chinese authorities not to do the same,” he said.

North Korean authorities consider it a criminal offense to leave the country without official permission, according to Darusman’s latest report.

Darusman, a former attorney-general of Indonesia, is part of a commission of inquiry launched in March to investigate violations and possible crimes against humanity in North Korea.

In Seoul, human rights groups strongly denounced the Lao government for handing them over despite fears they could face persecution there.

“The Lao government, knowing that deported refugees suffer severe punishment in the North, still sent the nine defectors back to the country,” the activist groups said in a press conference held in front of the Lao Embassy in central Seoul.

“The decision clearly goes against international humanitarian agreements, including the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”

Echoing growing concerns following the incident that the Southeast Asian country, a major transit point for North Korean defectors, might continue to repatriate other refugees, the human rights activists urged the Lao government not to repeat the decision in the future.

Lao government officials, in response to South Korea’s disappointment over the repatriation, said Thursday that “the domestic law mandates all illegal immigrants, regardless of their origin, be sent back to their home country,” according to South Korean Ambassador Lee Jeong-kwan in Laos.

Diplomatic sources said that unlike previous cases where the Lao government responded favorably to South Korea’s calls regarding North Korean refugees, it came under heavy pressure from Pyongyang this time regarding the nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry and its embassy in Laos have been under fire for allegedly failing in their duty to protect the North Koreans.

A senior Lao diplomat in Seoul denied Friday his published comment that the South Korean government did not file an official request to interview the nine North Korean defectors.

During their detention in Laos, South Korean officials have said their government had asked Laos to interview them as part of its efforts to send them to the South. But Khantivong Somlith, the minister consular at the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, told the Wall Street Journal that Seoul didn’t file an official request to visit them.

“We expected them to do that (request a visit),” the Journal quoted Somlith as saying in a Seoul-datelined report on its website.

In a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency on Friday, Somlith refuted the report.

“I didn’t say that,” Somlith said. “The comments are wrongly reported. I didn’t say that.”

Asked whether South Korea had asked the Laotian government to visit them, Somlith replied, “Yes.”

The nine North Koreans were detained by the Laotian authorities “because they illegally entered Laos. At the time, we didn’t know whether they were South Koreans or North Koreans.”

“When they moved into Vientiane, our foreign ministry informed both South Korean and North Korean embassies of their detention,” the minister counselor said.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se sent a special envoy, Ambassador Lee Jeong-kwan, to Laos and lodged a “strong protest” with the Lao government for deporting the North Koreans, Seoul officials said.

(From news reports)
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