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(7th LD) Nine defectors repatriated to N. Korea from China: official

All Headlines 19:12 May 29, 2013

(ATTN: ADDS criticism, quotes, photo in paras 11-13)

SEOUL, May 29 (Yonhap) -- Nine North Korean defectors have been repatriated to their totalitarian homeland from China after being caught in Laos earlier this month, a Seoul official said Wednesday, raising fears that they are likely to face harsh punishment.

The North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, fled their country to Laos via China last month, but were forced to return to China on Monday after being rounded up by the Lao authorities on May 10. South Korea had asked Laos to send them to Seoul, but Laos rejected Seoul's plea.

"It is judged that the nine North Korean defectors were repatriated to North Korea on Tuesday afternoon through an Air Koryo flight," the senior foreign ministry official said on the condition of anonymity.

While South Korea has asked China not to repatriate the North Koreans, Beijing's involvement in the case was limited because they have "appropriate travel documents," the official said.

The North Koreans -- seven men and two women -- were flown from the Lao capital, Vientiane, to Kunming in southwest China on Monday, and then transferred to Beijing Monday night before being deported to Pyongyang, the official said.

The official expressed "strong regrets" over the deportation of the North Korean defectors and pledged to "re-examine overall cooperative mechanisms" to prevent such a case from happening again.

"The government also plans to raise the deportation of the North Koreans at international organizations," the official said.

Diplomatic sources in Seoul say at least one North Korean agent was on board the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang with the defectors, indicating that the North Korean government was involved in the deportation.

It is "very rare" for North Korean defectors to be repatriated to Pyongyang by plane, the official said.

In Seoul, civic groups that help North Korean defectors criticized the foreign ministry and its embassy in Laso for "becoming complacent" in handling the case.

Laos had originally expressed its intention to send them to the South Korean embassy in Vientiane, but "unexpectedly" sent them to China, Seoul officials said. Also, the South Korean diplomats in Laos failed to interview the North Koreans during their 18-day detention there.

"The foreign ministry must be held accountable because its complacency put the lives of the North Korean defectors at risk," said Lee Ho-cheol, head of one of the civic groups, in a press conference held in front of the ministry.

Analysts said the latest deportation demonstrated that Pyongyang beefed up efforts to prevent its people from defecting to South Korea through Southeast Asian countries.

The ministry has set up a task force, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Kyung-soo, to handle the case, the official said, adding that the 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.

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.


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