China warns U.N. against 'irresponsible remarks' on North Koreans

BEIJING (Reuters) - China warned the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees on Monday against making “irresponsible remarks” about nine North Korean defectors the U.N. believes were repatriated to their isolated, authoritarian homeland by China last week.

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The United Nations said on Friday that it was concerned about China’s return of the nine young people to North Korea, where they face severe punishment, possibly execution, for having fled.

The nine, all believed to be orphans, were first sent back to China after crossing into Laos. The office of the UNHCR said last week it was seeking clarification from both China and Laos.

“We hope that the UNHCR does not make irresponsible remarks based on unverified news,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily news briefing.

The nine returned to North Korea last Tuesday, said Hong, but he denied Pyongyang had sought to have them returned.

“China hasn’t received any requests by parties concerned to assist in the repatriation of these people,” he said.

“As verified by the Chinese side, the nine people entered China on May 27 and left China for Korea on May 28 holding legal and valid documents and visas,” he said. “Chinese border authorities inspected their travel documents and approved their exit.”

Hundreds of North Koreans attempt to flee their country every year, often first crossing into China and then making their way to Southeast Asia. Many end up at a reception center in Bangkok from which they are flown to South Korea.

It is a highly risky trip of more than 5,000 km. In China, they must avoid North Korean agents, a network of informants and police. Many are repatriated from China and sent back to labor camps where they face possible starvation. Some have been executed.

Asked about policy towards North Korean defectors, Hong said China always handled such cases based on “its domestic laws and international laws as well as humanitarian principles”.

“We always oppose making it an international and political issue or an issue of refugees,” he said.

International law requires that people be allowed to apply for asylum and not be expelled to a country where their lives or freedom may be under threat.

The U.N. human rights office last week called on Pyongyang to allow independent monitors to visit the defectors.

Reporting by Terril Yue Jones; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Nick Macfie