Activists criticise reported N. Korean repatriation

SEOUL (AP) - Human rights groups have demanded that North Korea guarantee the safety of nine of its citizens who reportedly fled to Laos, only to be apprehended and sent back home.

Seven males and two females were flown home on Tuesday via China despite a request from South Korea that Beijing not repatriate them, the Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper in Seoul reported on Thursday, citing unidentified South Korean government officials. The Yonhap news agency cited a Foreign Ministry official in Seoul in its report that said the nine are aged 15 to 23.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry has declined to confirm the reports.

The Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on 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.

"UNHCR is deeply concerned about the safety and fundamental human rights of these individuals if they are returned" to North Korea, High Commissioner António Guterres said.

On Friday, activists criticised Laos during a rally outside its embassy in Seoul.

"We are here to call on Laos not to deport North Korean defectors because there is concern they may be tortured when sent back," said Lee Ho Taek, head of a group that provides refugees with support.

Close to 25,000 North Koreans have come to South Korea since the end of the Korean War. The vast majority of them hid in China and South-east Asian countries including Laos, Thailand and Vietnam before flying to Seoul.

China, North Korea's foremost ally, does not recognise 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 labour and as much as life in prison or the death penalty in cases deemed particularly serious. Activists say they could face torture.

"North Korea has to come clean on where these nine refugees are and publicly guarantee that they will not be harmed or retaliated against for having fled the country," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "As a result of their return, they are at dire risk."