Laos has sent back to China nine North Koreans who fled their impoverished homeland. The deportation raises fears the defectors may be repatriated by Beijing to North Korea, where they are likely to face harsh punishment.
A South Korean source who works with defectors and who had been in contact with the nine North Koreans confirmed to VOA they were flown from the Laotian capital, Vientiane, to Kunming in southwest China on Monday.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency earlier reported on the defectors, who it said were 15 to 23 years old. Quoting an anonymous South Korean foreign ministry official, the report said Laos "unexpectedly" rejected the South's plea to send them to Seoul.
Laos, along with other Southeast Asian countries, is a common destination for North Korean defectors, most of whom escape through China before eventually resettling in South Korea.
Despite protests from rights groups, China routinely repatriates the refugees to North Korea. Beijing considers them illegal migrants who fled for economic reasons rather than because they faced political persecution.
The refugees often face dire punishment if returned to the North. Reports of those who have been forcibly repatriated tell of beatings, torture, forced labor and sexual violence.
Thousands of North Koreans have defected to the South since famine crippled agricultural production in their homeland in the past decade. Those reaching Chinese territory often do so with the help of activists, missionaries or smugglers.