US concern over N Korea refugees 'returned by Laos'

A North Korean soldier stands guard on the banks of the Yalu River at the North Korean town of Sinuiju across from the Chinese city of Dandong on 10 April 2013
Image caption Many North Korean refugees leave via China for South East Asia nations - and a flight to Seoul

The US says it is concerned by reports that China has repatriated nine North Korean refugees deported by Laos.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed Foreign Ministry officials, says the group were flown back to Pyongyang on Tuesday.

It said the group were detained in Laos earlier this month and handed over to China, despite Seoul's appeals.

China traditionally repatriates North Korean refugees, ruling them economic migrants.

The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, left their country via China for Laos in April, Yonhap reported.

Laos authorities sent them to China on Monday - local reports said to Kunming - and they were put on an Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang on Tuesday, the agency said.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry has not yet commented formally on the case.

But an unnamed ministry official told Yonhap news agency that South Korea had asked UN human rights agencies to help ensure the safety of nine refugees.

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, accused both Laos and China of showing blatant disregard for the group's welfare by returning them to North Korea.

"These three governments will share the blame if further harm comes to these people," Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said.

In a statement, the US State Department urged "all countries in the region to co-operate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories".

Most North Korean refugees leave via China and head for nations in South East Asia, from where they can get to South Korea - which provides financial assistance and training.

Last year, just over 1,500 North Koreans arrived in the South, official figures showed. Rights groups say refugees who are repatriated can face punishment and imprisonment.

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