SEOUL — South Korean legislators on Friday condemned China's repatriation of fugitives from North Korea after Beijing reportedly sent nine back despite pleas from Seoul.
A resolution passed by the committee on foreign affairs and unification urges China to follow international rules in handling North Koreans who flee their impoverished homeland, and seeks outside help to halt the returns.
The resolution, adopted at a meeting attended by Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, followed reports by Yonhap news agency and newspapers that nine North Koreans were sent back last weekend.
Activists who have been demonstrating in Seoul say the fugitives face severe punishment, even a possible death sentence, if forced to return home.
President Lee Myung-Bak said Wednesday the North Koreans should be treated in line with international rules.
The South's foreign ministry has urged China to change its policy of treating North Koreans as economic migrants, and to give them refugee status.
The ministry declined to confirm last weekend's reported repatriations but said it would raise the issue for the first time at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next week.
Seoul, however, will not mention China by name because of fears this could backfire, Chosun Ilbo newspaper said.
"We don't want to put defectors in a bind by creating diplomatic discord with Beijing," an unnamed foreign ministry official was quoted as saying.\
North Korea's official website blasted the South for trying to internationalise the issue, saying repatriations are the "righful activity of sovereign nations".
"Recently South Korean authorities have been frantic in their commotion over 'refugees' in a reckless attempt to internationalise the issue of repatriating them," the Uriminzokkiri website said Friday.
"Nobody can say this or that about the rightful activity of sovereign nations when they take administrative actions on problems on their border in line with domestic laws and relevant treaties."
About 30 North Korean refugees have reportedly been caught by Chinese authorities this month and are awaiting repatriation, as their relatives or other supporters in the South campaign to save them.
"My brother in North Korea called me, and said that my female cousin who crossed into China in late February was caught and sent back to North Korea," a North Korean refugee in the South told Yonhap Thursday.
She said eight others were also repatriated.
A Seoul group called North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity said it could confirm that China had recently repatriated three North Koreans, although there might have been more.
More than 21,700 North Koreans have fled to the South since the 1950-1953 war, the vast majority in recent years. They typically escape on foot to China, hide out and then travel to a third country to seek resettlement in the South.
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