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Concerns Intensify Over Three North Korean Children in Laos Jail

Three young North Korean refugees, currently held in prison in the Lao capital Vientiane, are facing the threat of deportation back to North Korea. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, international aid and human rights groups are trying to have the three sent to Thailand from where they could travel on to South Korea.

Lao officials arrested the three young North Koreans late last year as they attempted to cross the Mekong River border between Laos and Thailand.

The brother and sister, aged 12 and 13, and a 17-year-old girl, remain in a Lao prison.

Like many other North Koreans fleeing the impoverished communist state, they had reportedly crossed into China after losing their parents to famine in the late 1990s.

Human rights sources say the three were given three-month jail sentences in November for entering Laos illegally, and that North Korean officials visited them in jail.

A Japan-based group that cares for North Korean refugees, called Life Funds for North Korean Refugees, received letters from the young Koreans earlier this month.

Kato Hiroshi, secretary-general of Life Funds, says the North Korean officials told the children they faced severe punishment once they are sent back to North Korea.

"So the three children are very much frightened and shocked. They were in a panic and wrote a letter to us [saying] 'We don't want to go, we don't want to go, please help us.' They are appealing each by each in a written form in a small piece of paper," Hiroshi says.

Life Funds organized a press conference in Tokyo, has appealed to the United States for help, and sent a petition to the Lao Embassy in Tokyo.

South Korea's foreign ministry said Tuesday it was "doing its best" to help North Korean refugees wherever they are. But officials refused to make comments on this case.

Diplomats say that talks are underway in Vientiane between Lao officials, the South Korean Embassy and the United Nations. Lao government officials were unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

Life Funds' Hiroshi hopes that once Lao New Year celebrations are over this week the three children may be released. But he remains cautious.

"Some news said that it was developing good, and it will be resolved soon. But [there is] no official reaction yet," Hiroshi says. "We are only regarding this news as opportunistic speculation. So we are still wondering whether they are released or not."

In Thailand increasing numbers of North Koreans have arrived in the past few years where the government's policy has been to have the refugees detained briefly before they are sent abroad, mostly to South Korea.

Each country deals with the North Korean refugees differently.

In August last year, Thai police detained 175 North Koreans at a house in Bangkok. They had traveled through China and Burma to Thailand.

Diplomatic sources in Vientiane say Lao officials have been accused of seeking bribes and other payments from North Koreans who travel through Laos, despite an understanding with North Korea to detain the refugees for deportation.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans have escaped to neighboring China and travel on to Mongolia or Southeast Asia. China has been criticized for its policy of deporting refugees back to North Korea.