Eleven North Koreans seeking to defect to South Korea have been detained in Vietnam since Nov. 23 and are seeking help to avoid being repatriated, a South Korean activist group said on Monday. The eight women ranging in age from early 20s to 50s, and three men in their 20s, were detained by border guards in northern Vietnam two days after crossing from China, and are being held in the city of Lang Son, the Seoul-based Justice for North Korea said in a statement.
Currently, Vietnam is detaining all the defectors. After several of the women fainted, the Vietnamese government decided against forcibly sending them to China, according to Peter Jung, the head of Justice for North Korea which supports North Korean asylum-seekers.
Jung told VOA’s Korean Service that one of the defectors who had a cellphone contacted the South Korean Embassy in Vietnam asking for help, but he had not heard from them since Friday.
Jung added the Seoul embassy’s subsequent silence had spurred him to publicize the situation, fearing that without an international response the defectors could be forcibly repatriated. “The embassy told them it will take appropriate measures to help them,” said Jung. “But the defectors have not heard from the embassy” since Friday.
The defectors asked the South Korean government to provide asylum in Seoul so they can avoid being deported to North Korea. In a video clip sent by Jung, a woman was nursing other people who appeared to be ill.
The South Korean foreign ministry said it was aware of the case and had been in touch with the Vietnamese government. “Our government has been making necessary efforts to ensure the North Korean defectors living abroad are sent to a desired place without being forcibly repatriated,” the ministry said in a statement.
If the 11 defectors are sent to China, they would most likely be deported back to North Korea, where they could face severe punishment such as forced labor, torture and even execution.
As of September, at least 771 North Korean defectors had entered South Korea this year, according to the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles relations with the North.