Updated at 7:15 p.m. ET on 2013-05-28
Laos has deported nine North Korean defectors to China after rejecting a plea by Seoul to send them to South Korea, according to officials Tuesday.
The defectors, who had fled their country to the Southeast Asian nation via China last month, are all orphans in their teens and early twenties, one nongovernmental organization said.
The deportation raises fears that Beijing will repatriate the defectors to North Korea, where they are likely to face harsh punishment.
The nine were put on a plane to China late Monday after being rounded up in Laos on May 10, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported.
The report quoted a South Korean foreign ministry official as saying that Seoul had asked that the defectors be sent to South Korea instead, but Laos had “unexpectedly” rejected the request.
A representative of a civil society organization in Laos familiar with the case said several North Koreans, possibly diplomats, were on board the flight to China with the defectors.
The defectors—seven men and two women—are between 15 and 22 years old, according to the representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
South Korea sets up task force
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se confirmed the plane had landed in China and said his ministry has set up a task force to handle the case, according to Yonhap.
In a regular press briefing on Tuesday, the ministry’s spokesman Cho Tai-young declined to comment on the case, but said Seoul "has continued to make efforts with relevant countries to bring North Korean defectors” to South Korea.
Rights groups in South Korea expressed dismay at the deportation, urging an all-out effort by Seoul to prevent Beijing from repatriating the nine to North Korea.
Kim Young-ja, director of the Seoul-based group North Korean Human Rights, said the deportation could signal stepped-up efforts by North Korean authorities to prevent citizens from passing through Southeast Asian countries.
“North Korean authorities have been making a lot of efforts to prevent North Koreans from escaping the country,” she told RFA’s Korean Service.
“North Korean authorities tightly control the border with China even on the Chinese side. Now, they are trying to block the Southeast Asian escape routes."
Laos and other Southeast Asian countries are a common transit country for North Korean defectors who escape their homeland via China with the aim of eventually resettling in South Korea.
China considers the tens of thousands of North Koreans hiding in its borders as illegal economic migrants rather than asylum-seekers, and routinely deports them back to North Korea despite protests by rights groups.
Rights groups say the returnees face severe punishments, including the death sentence.
Reported by Songwu Park and Hee Jung Yang for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Bong Park. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.