SEOUL, May 29 (UPI) -- South Korea Wednesday urged China to refrain from repatriating nine North Korean defectors to their home country, a South Korean official said.
The defectors, seven men and two women between the ages 15 and 23, were sent to China from Laos this week and the South Korean government says it is concerned for their safety if deported to North Korea.
South Korea had asked Laos to send the defectors to Seoul after they fled North Korea via China last month but Laos declined the request, Yonhap News reported, quoting the official. The defectors were taken from Vientiane to Kunming in southwestern China on Monday and they were believed to have "appropriate travel documents," the official said.
"Our government has asked the Chinese authorities not to repatriate the nine North Korean defectors to the North through various diplomatic channels," a South Korean Foreign Ministry official told Yonhap.
The report said the official denied a report the defectors had been repatriated Tuesday to Pyongyang.
"To my knowledge, the North Korean defectors are still believed to be in Beijing," the official said, adding that the South Korean government is trying to find their whereabouts, Yonhap said.
Yonhap said Laos has become a major transit points for North Korean defectors, who flee their homeland through China with the aim of eventually entering South Korea. More than 25,000 North Koreans have reached South Korea.
Human rights activists say China doesn't recognize them as asylum seekers but as illegal immigrants. If they are repatriated to North Korea, they could face severe punishment including beatings and forced labor, they said.