Nine young North Korean defectors are at the center of a diplomatic storm. A war of words has broken out over the young refugees – all thought to be orphans – who the UN believes were sent back to their authoritarian homeland by China last week.
The UN said it was concerned about the return of the children to North Korea, where they could face severe punishment for having fled. Meanwhile, Beijing warned the UN against making “irresponsible remarks” about the young defectors.
The defectors, ranging in age from 15 to 22, were turned over by Laotian authorities to North Korean security agents, who flew them via China back to North Korea on May 28.
The refugees likely face harsh imprisonment in political gulags, torture, or execution. North Korea deems escaping from the country to be a political “crime of treason against the nation.” Under North Korean law, the minimum punishment is five years of hard labor.
It is unusual for Laos to have turned over the refugees so quickly to North Korea, as it is that Pyongyang sent nine security agents to escort them back to North Korea. South Korean officials commented that Laos had previously allowed refugees expressing a desire to travel to South Korea to do so after a few weeks’ hiatus.
North Korea may be seeking to disrupt the underground railroad by intimidating other defectors from attempting to escape. Up to 90 percent of North Korean refugees pass through Laos.
Tens of thousands of North Koreans are estimated to be hiding in northeast China, seeking to travel to South Korea via Mongolia or southeast Asian nations such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos.
Human rights activists argue that in allowing the transit of the North Koreans across China, Beijing “violates its commitments as a state party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1984 Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment.” However, China denied knowledge of the refugees’ plight since they had been given valid travel documents by North Korean embassy officials in Laos.