U.N. envoy says Russia-North Korea deportation pact puts refugees at risk

SEOUL (Reuters) - An extradition treaty signed by Russia and North Korea could be used to send back defectors from the North and put them at risk of serious harm in their home country, including torture, the U.N. human rights investigator on North Korea said on Thursday.

The comments by Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, came amid reports that nine North Koreans arrested in Vietnam are in Chinese custody and may soon be repatriated.

“I am disappointed to learn that Russia signed an extradition treaty with the DPRK last week,” Darusman said in a statement in Seoul, referring to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Despite Russia’s assurance that this treaty will not be used to return anybody at risk of persecution, I am deeply concerned that it could de facto facilitate forced repatriation of DPRK asylum seekers. This may put the returnees at risk of serious violations, including torture.”

A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Seoul could not immediately be reached for comment after business hours.

News reports said Russia and North Korea reached the agreement a year ago on deporting illegal immigrants found in either country within 30 days. The two countries share a border in the North’s northeastern region.

A major U.N. human rights investigation found last year that North Koreans forcibly repatriated to Pyongyang are commonly subjected to torture, detention, execution, or sexual violence, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said last week.

Forcibly sending refugees back to a country where they could suffer persecution is banned under international treaties signed by China, but Beijing views those defecting from North Korea as economic migrants.

Last week a U.N. General Assembly committee condemned what it said were rampant and planned human rights abuses in North Korea. It also referred to the findings of a U.N. Human Rights Council commission of inquiry that said rights abuses in North Korea may amount to crimes against humanity.

North Korea rejected the resolution, calling it a political plot by the United States and “other hostile forces against the DPRK and has no relevance whatsoever with genuine promotion and protection of human rights”.

Impoverished North Korea and rich, democratic South Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty.

The North, slapped with U.N. and U.S. sanctions for its nuclear weapons and rocket programs, often threatens to destroy the South, and its major ally, the United States, in a sea of flames.

Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Nick Macfie