Lao official denies comment over N. Korean defectors repatriated home

SEOUL, May 31 (Yonhap) -- A senior Lao diplomat in Seoul denied Friday his published comment that the South Korean government didn't file an official request to interview the nine North Korean defectors who were repatriated to the North this week.

The nine North Koreans, aged between 15 and 23, were flown home on Tuesday from China after being caught in Laos on May 10, despite South Korea's plea to send them to Seoul.

During their detention in Laos, South Korean officials have said their government had asked Laos to interview them as part of its efforts to send them to the South. But Khantivong Somlith, the minister consular at the Lao Embassy in Seoul, told the Wall Street Journal that Seoul didn't file an official request to visit them.

"We expected them to do that (request a visit)," the Journal quoted Somlith as saying in a Seoul-datelined report on its website.

In a telephone interview with Yonhap News Agency on Friday, Somlith refuted the report.

"I didn't say that," Somlith said. "The comments are wrongly reported. I didn't say that."

Asked whether South Korea had asked the Lao government to visit them, Somlith replied, "Yes."

The nine North Koreans were detained by the Lao authorities "because they illegally entered Laos. At the time, we didn't know whether they were South Koreans or North Koreans."

"When they moved into Vientiane, our foreign ministry informed both South Korean and North Korean embassies of their detention," the minister counselor said.

South Korea's foreign ministry and its embassy in Laos have been under fire for allegedly failing their duty to protect the North Koreans.

Diplomatic sources in Seoul 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 involved in the deportation.

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se sent a special envoy, Ambassador Lee Jeong-kwan, to Laos and lodged a "strong protest" with the Lao government for deporting the North Koreans, Seoul officials said.

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