Posted : 2013-05-31 16:02
Updated : 2013-05-31 16:02

Foreign ministry in hot water over defectors

Members of a North Korea human rights group stage a rally in front of the Laotian Embassy in Seoul, Friday, holding up placards criticizing the Laotian government for sending North Korean defectors back to their homeland earlier this week where they are expected to be punished harshly.
/ Korea Times photo by Bae Woo-han

Clarification issued to rebut reports it didn't ask Laos for interview

By Chung Min-uck

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday denied an allegation that it did not file a request for an interview with the Laotian government after being informed of nine North Korean defectors detained in Laos.

The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that the South Korean embassy in Laos did not file an official request to visit the defectors, quoting Laotian officials.

In contrast, the North Korean embassy there, on being informed about the detainment simultaneously on May 10, made a swift move to take custody of the defectors, according to the newspaper.

The foreign ministry has come under fire for failing in its duty to protect the North Koreans.

Diplomatic sources say at least one North Korean agent was on board the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang with the defectors, indicating that the North Korean government was actively involved in the deportation.

The nine defectors, aged between 15 and 23, were repatriated to the North via China Tuesday after being deported by Laos. They are expected to face harsh punishment, including hard labor in political prison camps or even execution.

"Our embassy in Laos knew about the detainment prior to being notified by the Laotian authority on May 10 and informed the central government there," said a foreign ministry official, refuting the media report. "But the Laotian government told us to wait. Regardless of that, we constantly requested an interview and cooperation by sending notes."

Sources say that the South Korean ambassador to the Southeast Asian country even held talks with a high-ranking Laotian foreign ministry official on the day of the deportation to prevent the North Koreans being repatriated.

A senior Laotian diplomat in Seoul told Yonhap News Agency Friday by phone that South Korean officials asked the Laotian government for an interview with the defectors.

UN voices concern

U.N. officials voiced concern Thursday over the fate of the nine defectors.

Antonio Guterres, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in a statement, he is "deeply concerned about the safety and fundamental human rights of these individuals if they are returned to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)."

The UNHCR is seeking information on the whereabouts of the nine North Koreans, according to the statement. It is also in contact with authorities in Laos to establish the initial facts behind the incident and to prevent any future deportation of people of concern.

A U.N. human rights investigator also expressed concern over the safety of the repatriated North Koreans.

"I have very real concerns about the penalties and treatment they could face if returned to North Korea," said Marzuki Darusman, U.N. special rapporteur on North Korea, in a separate statement. "All the concerned authorities have an urgent responsibility to ensure their protection."

The Seoul government earlier asked U.N. human rights groups to help ensure the safety of the defectors. The foreign ministry is also running a task force led by Deputy Minister Lee Kyung-soo to effectively cope with the situation.

관련 한글 기사

주한 라오스대사관 "韓, 탈북청소년 면담 요청했다"

'북한 주민이라 북한에 넘겨'

라오스에서 추방돼 북송된 탈북 청소년에 대해 현지 한국 공관이 공식적인 면담 요청을 하지 않았다는 미국 월스트리트저널(WSJ) 보도에 대해 주한 라오스대사관이 이를 부인했다.

WSJ에 발언이 인용된 칸티봉 소믈리쓰 주한 라오스대사관 공사는 31일 연합뉴스와의 통화에서 '주라오스 한국대사관이 탈북 청소년에 대해 공식적으로 면담을 요청했느냐'는 질문에 대해 '그렇다'고 답했다.

앞서 WSJ는 칸티봉 공사가 '우리는 그들(한국대사관 직원들)이 면담 요청을 할 것으로 기대했다'고 말했다고 보도했다. 그러면서 한국측이 탈북 청소년들에 대해 공식적인 면담 요청을 하지 않았다고 라오스 외교부 관리들이 말했다고 전했다.

칸티봉 공사는 WSJ에 인용된 발언에 대해 '나는 그렇게 말하지 않았다'면서 '그 코멘트는 잘못 보도됐다'고 해명했다.

그는 '9명의 한인이 불법 입국해 라오스 경찰에 체포됐으며 체포 당시에 우리는 그들이 남한에서 왔는지, 북한에서 왔는지 몰랐다'면서 '그래서 9명의 한인이 수도 비엔티엔으로 이동했을 때 라오스 외교부는 남북한 대사관에 모두 그들의 억류에 대해 알려줬다'고 말했다.

그는 이어 '라오스 경찰은 그들 모두가 북한 주민이었기 때문에 그들을 북한 공관에 넘겼다'고 설명했다.

우리 외교부 당국자도 이날 WSJ 보도에 대해 '체포 당일인 지난 10일 한국인 안내인으로부터 탈북 청소년이 체포된 사실을 우리가 먼저 인지해 라오스 중앙정부에 알렸다'면서 '그날 현지 공관에서 라오스 이민국 국장과 만나 체포된 탈북 청소년 및 한국인 안내인 2명과의 면담을 주선해 달라고 요청했다'고 밝혔다.

그러나 라오스 이민국장이 '현장에 간다고 되는 것은 아니니 기다려달라'고 말해 면담이 불발됐다고 이 당국자는 설명했다.

이 당국자는 '탈북 청소년과 한국인들이 라오스 수도로 이송돼 온 뒤에도 문서를 통해 현지 외교부를 통해 면담을 요청했다'고 밝혔다.

정부 소식통은 '면담 요청 등은 다 기록이 있는데 공식 면담 요청이 없었다고 하면 어떻게 하느냐'고 WSJ 보도 내용을 부인했다.

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