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(LEAD) S. Korea asks China not to repatriate nine N.K. defectors: official
SEOUL, May 29 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has asked China not to repatriate nine North Korean defectors, who were sent back to China from Laos early this week, to their totalitarian homeland, a senior Seoul official said Wednesday.

   The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, were deported to China on Monday, after being rounded up by the Lao authorities on May 10, Seoul's foreign ministry officials have said. South Korea had asked Laos to send them to Seoul after they fled from their country to the Southeast Asian nation via China last month, but Laos rejected Seoul's plea.

   "Our government has asked the Chinese authorities not to repatriate the nine North Korean defectors to the North through various diplomatic channels," the official at Seoul's foreign ministry said on the condition of anonymity.

   The official denied an earlier media report that the North Korean defectors -- seven men and two women -- were repatriated to Pyongyang via an Air Koryo flight on Tuesday.

   "To my knowledge, the North Korean defectors are still believed to be in Beijing," the official said, adding that South Korea is trying to find their whereabouts in the Chinese capital.
The North Koreans were flown from the Laotian capital, Vientiane, to Kunming in southwest China on Monday, and they were believed to have "appropriate travel documents," according to the official.

   "Because they have appropriate travel documents, the Chinese authorities' involvement in this case may be limited," the official said.

   The ministry also set up a task force, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Kyung-soo, to handle the case, he said, adding that his government confirmed that they landed in China.

   Laos has become one of the major transit points for North Korean defectors, who flee their homeland through China with the aim of eventually entering South Korea.

   Tens of thousands of North Korean defectors are believed to be hiding in China, hoping to travel to Laos, Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries before resettling in South Korea, which is presently home to more than 25,000 North Korean defectors.

   North Korean defectors face harsh punishments and even execution after being repatriated from China, which does not recognize them as asylum seekers, according to defectors in South Korea and human rights activists.

   kdh@yna.co.kr
(END)
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