North Korea has accused the South of trying to kidnap nine North Korean youths who were detained in Laos last month before being repatriated to their homeland.
In a statement carried by the North's official news agency on Wednesday, a North Korean Red Cross official said South Korean agents tricked the North Koreans into leaving the country.
The official said the South Koreans beat and brainwashed the youths, forcing them to read Christian literature while transporting them through China to Laos. The North Korean statement accused Seoul of carrying out an unprecedented crime.
Laotian authorities detained the nine North Koreans on May 10 for alleged illegal entry into Laos. They also detained two South Koreans accompanying the youths on suspicion of illegal human trafficking.
Seoul denied the trafficking charge and said the two South Koreans were trying to help the youths defect to South Korea through Laos. The South Korean government also accused North Korea of sending agents to Laos to force the nine North Koreans to return home through China.
The Chinese government said the youths entered China from Laos with valid documents on May 27 and returned to North Korea a day later, suggesting their passage through Chinese territory was voluntary.
The U.N. rights agency expressed concern about the fate of the nine North Koreans on Friday, saying their return to North Korea puts them at risk of severe punishment for attempting to defect. It criticized both Laos and China for allowing the youths to be repatriated.
South Korean rights activist Ahn Kyung-su told the Associated Press that he met the North Koreans in April while they were being sheltered by a South Korean missionary in the northeastern Chinese city of Dandong, near the North Korean border.
Ahn said the youths appeared to be orphans who were scavenging for food along the border when the missionary offered them shelter in China.
At least 20,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Many of them escaped the North with the help of South Korean rights groups, secretly entering neighboring China before traveling to Southeast Asian nations to seek permanent resettlement in South Korea. North Korean defectors caught by Chinese authorities frequently have been sent home under an agreement between the two allies.