South Korea's president is calling for Pyongyang to guarantee the safety of a group of young North Korean refugees who were forcibly repatriated with the apparent cooperation of Laos, China and North Korea.
The nine North Koreans, ranging in age between 15 and 23, had been in hiding in China after fleeing their country in 2011.
They were detained on May 10 in Laos, where they were making plans to get to South Korea as refugees.
The Laotian government sent the group back to China on May 27. They were flown to North Korea the following day.
The Laotian foreign ministry issued a statement Monday saying the North Koreans had entered Laos illegally and were accompanied by two South Koreans “who have committed human trafficking.” It confirmed handing the 11 Koreans to their respective embassies last week.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed concern about the North Koreans, calling their forced return a “truly regrettable incident that should have never happened."
“All people have the right to enjoy freedom from the time they are born and that right should never be deprived or infringed upon,” Park said.
The United Nations has also expressed strong concerns about the fate of the North Koreans.
President Park said her government is not looking at this as merely a diplomatic issue with Laos, but a global human rights issue.
Her own foreign ministry is facing criticism that it was unable to help the North Koreans, despite being aware of their arrests in Laos.
Southeast Asia is frequently a transit route for North Koreans who have escaped their country by crossing into China and intending to resettle in South Korea.
South Korean government officials say the issue of forced repatriations by the Chinese will be raised when President Park makes a state visit to Beijing, later this month.