SEOUL • A group of 11 North Koreans detained in Vietnam while seeking to defect to South Korea has been released thanks to the help of European institutions, a Seoul-based activist group said yesterday.
The eight women and three men were caught by border guards in northern Vietnam in late November after crossing from China, and had been held in the north-eastern border city of Lang Son.
Mr Peter Jung, head of Justice for North Korea which was helping the refugees, said the 11 were freed last month and on their way to South Korea. Multiple European organisations played a key role, he said. He declined to identify them, citing diplomatic sensitivity, but said they included a non-government group.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that US officials, including diplomats engaged in denuclearisation talks with North Korea, had intervened to secure the defectors' release, citing unidentified sources.
But Mr Jung said he was unaware of any US contribution.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry yesterday said that the WSJ report was "not factual", but added that the government had made immediate efforts to prevent the defectors from being forcibly repatriated. It refused to elaborate.
"The European institutions acted after we published a video of the refugees making desperate appeals for freedom," Mr Jung said. "The South's Foreign Ministry got also involved later."
Mr Jung had distributed a video of some of the 11 protesting against deportation before appearing to faint.
About 33,000 North Koreans have resettled in the affluent, democratic South. Most risked their lives to cross the border in an effort that may entail persecution and slave labour should they be caught and repatriated.
As living examples of some of Pyongyang's worst abuses, defectors have long been the public face of campaigns to pressure North Korea to change its ways.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been criticised by groups like Mr Jung's for not helping defectors enough and ignoring human rights issues as he promotes rapprochement with the North.
In November, after brief questioning, South Korea expelled two North Korean fishermen, calling them criminals who murdered 16 colleagues before crossing the border into the South.
A coalition of defector groups issued a joint statement criticising the decision, saying the men should have been tried in the South because they would likely face torture, and possibly execution, back home.