North Korea presents escapees repatriated from Laos before media

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea has held a press conference with nine people it says are the young refugees controversially repatriated from Laos last year, state media confirmed, in a further bid to refute claims they had been imprisoned and executed.

The group, then aged 15 to 19, were arrested in Laos in May 2013 and eventually returned to the North via China, despite pleas by Seoul and the UN against their repatriation due to concerns for their safety once they returned to their repressive homeland. It was not clear exactly when they had escaped from North Korea.

The North is seeking to avoid any fresh criticism of its human rights record ahead of a key United Nations vote on Dec 18 on a resolution that recommends referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court on possible charges of crimes against humanity.

The press conference in Pyongyang on Friday was organised in order to reveal "the absurdity" of such "outrageous" allegations by US and South Korean "human rights tricksters", a master of ceremonies was quoted as saying at the event by Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency.

Earlier this month, a former Seoul lawmaker said that the two eldest refugees - Mun Chol and Paek Yong Won - had been executed on their return and the others sent to a prison camp.

Both purportedly appeared at the press conference, but their identities - and those of the rest of the group - have yet to be independently verified.

"I cannot suppress my anger... How could they utter nonsense like that as we are all living well here?", one man, who identified himself as Mun, said at the press conference.

Another one identified as Paek said anti-North Korean "human rights slanderers" were distorting stories about their fate in order to defame the North.

KCNA published pictures of the nine at the press conference, which it said was attended by both North Korean journalists and foreign correspondents, though this too has not been verified.

It came a day after North Korea released a fresh video purportedly showing the nine refugees, including footage of them studying in school and praising leader Kim Jong-Un.

North Koreans caught after fleeing the country are known to face severe punishment on their return. There was no way to determine to what extent the video represented the reality of the young defectors' situation.

Defectors who voluntarily return to North Korea - sometimes because the lives of family members there have been threatened - are often paraded in front of TV cameras to denounce the horrors of life in the South.

South Korea's Unification Ministry said on Thursday it could not judge the veracity of the video or even confirm if the children shown were indeed the ones repatriated from Laos.

Most North Koreans fleeing their homeland begin their journey by crossing into neighbouring China, where they risk being repatriated if caught.

They then try to reach a third country - usually in South-east Asia - where most then seek help from a South Korean embassy to aid their resettlement.