GENEVA/SEOUL – The United Nations and the United States on Friday took Laos and China to task for forcing nine young asylum seekers back to North Korea, warning that the countries were flouting international commitments.
“We are extremely concerned for the protection of this group, which includes up to five minors, who are at risk of severe punishment and ill treatment,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights.
“We are dismayed that the governments of Laos and China appear to have abrogated their nonrefoulement obligations, especially given the vulnerability of this group, all of whom are reported to be orphans,” Colville told reporters in Geneva.
“Refoulement” is the term used under international law for unjustly sending a refugee home.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was “very concerned” by the forced repatriation.
“We urge all countries in the region to cooperate in the protection of North Korean refugees within their territories,” she told reporters.
“We do remain very concerned about their well-being, and we’re monitoring it closely,” she said.
The nine, arrested in Laos some three weeks ago, were returned to neighboring China on Monday and flown back to North Korea the following day.
North Korean defectors traditionally try to make the journey to South Korea by first heading to China and then proceeding through other countries.
Laos previously had been seen as a relatively safe transit point.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is believed to have tightened border controls since he came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
The number of refugees arriving in South Korea plunged by more than 40 percent to 1,508 last year.
“The situation of returnees to North Korea has been a constant source of concern for many years. They can receive very severe punishment merely because they have left the country,” Colville said.
“Before anyone is sent back, we need to assess their asylum claim, and ensure they will be secure if they are sent back. That’s a process that should be gone through, rather than some summary return,” he said.
Dan McNorton, a spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said his that agency was “gravely concerned” for the group’s safety.
“All countries should refrain from any measures, directly or indirectly, that lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life will be threatened,” he told reporters.
A South Korean newspaper reported Thursday the son of a Japanese woman abducted by North Korea in the 1970s was among the group.
He was reportedly the son of Kyoko Matsumoto, who disappeared at age 29 and whom Tokyo officially designated as an abductee of North Korea.
Matsumoto vanished after leaving her home in Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, in October 1977.
The sources said there was information Matsumoto had a son in his mid-20s and that he could have been the 23-year-old man in the group of defectors, according to the Dong-a Ilbo, which said South Korea was also trying to verify the information.